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‘Canadian’ Internet pharmacies banking on consumers taking them at face value

The business model for illicit Internet pharmacies, like that of any con game, depends on customers not asking too many inconvenient questions. “Why are these medications so cheap?” “Where do these medications come from?” “This seems too good to be true; what’s the catch?” The biggest threat to illicit Internet pharmacies does not come from government enforcement, registrar action against domain names used for illicit purposes, or legal action against rogue Internet pharmacy operators, but from potential customers asking inconvenient questions. The answers to these questions should send any sane Internet user running for the hills, and the entire illicit Internet pharmacy model depends on customers never thinking to ask them.

The background: in 2013, the Maine State Legislature passed a law permitting pharmacies in countries with drug safety standards similar to those in the US, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, to ship drugs into Maine. Although prescription drug importation remains illegal under US federal laws and regulations, in-state pharmacy licensure requirements were removed for pharmacies in these countries shipping into Maine, rendering those shipments legal under state (but not federal) laws. Strongly in support of the new law were businesses that stood to profit from increased shipments to the US, such as foreign Internet pharmacies that have profited handsomely from illegal drug shipments into the US.

As LegitScript has documented in the past, supposedly “Canadian” Internet pharmacies like CanadaDrugs.com, NorthwestPharmacy.com, and UniversalDrugstore.com ship drugs from India, Turkey, Singapore, and other locations, often directly from entities that are sometimes not licensed as pharmacies in any country, never mind the United States or Canada. The drugs, in most cases, are not really coming from a Canadian pharmacy. Yet these businesses, which are often owned or operated by, or employ, a Canadian pharmacist, market their websites as Canadian or British, presumably to increase their customers’ comfort level based on the false implication that the drugs are supplied by a licensed Canadian pharmacy. Many of these supposedly “Canadian” Internet pharmacies will not ship drugs to Canadian residents.

In Maine, it hasn’t taken long for the truth to come out. Several months ago, the president of the Maine Pharmacy Association, Kenneth “Mac” McCall, saw an advertisement for discount prescription medication in his local newspaper. An operator at the other end of the toll-free number on the advertisement directed McCall to a website purporting to sell safe drugs from Canada at a substantial discount.

Rather than taking the website’s claim of cheap, convenient, safe medications at face value, McCall decided to investigate. After obtaining prescriptions for Celebrex, Nexium, and Plavix from his primary care physician, he ordered generic versions of these medications from the website behind the newspaper advertisements: canadadrugcenter.com.

McCall’s suspicions were confirmed the moment his order arrived: the medications he received were not manufactured in Canada, but in India. These medications did not even come from Canada — rather, they came from businesses in Turkey, India, and an island in the Indian Ocean (Mauritius). Shipping these medications is inconsistent with US federal law, of course, but also with the spirit, if not the text, of Maine’s exception, which was not intended to provide a conduit for these shipments.

Of course, the “Canadian” Internet pharmacy industry could not allow such unbridled truth-telling to run amok: it’s imperative to their industry that US residents continue to buy into the fiction that if a website has a name like “CanadaDrugCenter.com” and is approved by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, well then, the drugs must come from Canada or, at least, come from the same place that Canadian residents would get their drugs.

In light of this, it comes as no surprise that the reaction from canadadrugcenter.com was one of deflection and scorn. John Myers, an attorney representing the website, accused McCall of “[acting] as a detective of some sort” and of “[obtaining] three prescriptions under false pretenses.” Myers’ mocking and self-assured tone fails to mask the underlying desperation of a company that relies on its customers’ complacency and ignorance, as well as its own misleading branding as a “Canada” Drug Center,  as the foundation of its entire business model. Myers’ personal attack on McCall is a diversionary tactic designed to distract the public’s attention from the real issue: that Maine’s legislature appears to have been bamboozled into believing that so-called “Canadian” Internet pharmacies with a history of being tied to counterfeit drug sales, and that do not even ship to Canada, are actually shipping drugs from Canada.

Not only does LegitScript applaud McCall’s decision to — in Myers’ impolitic words — “act as a detective of some sort,” but we also wish more consumers would play this role when it comes to ordering medications online. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The Canadian Internet pharmacy industry, led by organizations such as the Canadian International Pharmacy Association (directed by the very “Canadian” Internet pharmacies it purports to certify), has been misleading US residents for years. When challenged, the industry falls back on the tired old argument that it is the line of defense against dastardly “Big Pharma” and is only trying to provide cost savings to US residents, without mentioning that these not-so-Canadian Internet pharmacies are themselves for-profit businesses, making handsome returns from markups on the drugs they sell to US residents from locations other than Canada.

We urge customers to take a page from Mr. McCall’s playbook and be sure that the online pharmacies they use to acquire their medications are all they appear to be. After all, if an Internet pharmacy is legitimate, it will welcome the tough questions, not retain hired guns to attack the motives of those who ask them.