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FDA Runs Operation to Takedown Illegal Drug Stores Online

In late October, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced the completion of an operation that targeted more than 400 websites that illegally distributed opioids and other drugs not intended for human consumption. The operation, according to an official announcement, was part of an international investigation into illicit drug sales led by Interpol and involving dozens of supporting agencies across the globe.

The internationally coordinated investigation and action taken against websites illegally selling pharmaceuticals and selling illegal pharmaceuticals was called “Operation Pangea XI.” Operation Pangea is an Interpol led operation that began in 2008 and has continued through 2018. Last year, between September 12 and September 18, almost 200 law enforcement agencies participated in Operation Pangea X in ending hundreds of illicit drug sites and seizing thousands of illegally owned narcotics and medical supplies.

“I’m particularly concerned about the ease with which consumers can gain access to controlled substances and prescription opioids online,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. This year, the operation’s focus was primarily illegal drug websites and online pharmacies. One of the Food and Drug Administration’s most successful busts this year, according to the announcement, was carried out by the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation; alongside the usual law enforcement agencies, the FDA-OCI took down Melissa Scanlan aka “The Drug Llama,” a fentanyl vendor from Dream Market and other darkweb marketplaces. Court documents accused Scanlan of selling more than 50,000 fentanyl pills and various quantities of other opioids, cancer medication, and birth control pills.

At nine international mail facilities (IMFs) in the U.S., special agents with the FDA-OCI and other law enforcement agencies conducted a large-scale mail searching operation. Over the course of four days, FDA-OCI special agents intercepted more than 600 packages of illegal substances. Although many of the packages were reintroduced into the mail stream, the special agents removed more than 700 different drugs and illegal substances. The international packages had entered the United States from the United Kingdom, Canada, and India, according to the FDA. Many of these packages were identified as the product of online drug websites. Outside of the United States, other law enforcement agencies had similar success. In Poland, law enforcement seized birth control pills that had been hidden inside packages of DVDs and sleeping pills that had been hidden inside books that had been specially crafted to store hidden materials.

“The sale of potentially dangerous and counterfeit drugs by criminal networks on the internet is a large and growing threat to the public health,” Commissioner Gottlieb said. “The illegal online pharmacies that we’re taking action against are often run by sophisticated criminal networks that knowingly and unlawfully distribute illicit drugs, including potentially counterfeit medicines and controlled substances both on the surface and dark web.”

Many of the sites taken down by the FDA-OCI were removed with nothing more than a letter from the FDA to the site’s hosting company. Others required the deconstruction of a site’s payment network by contacting financial institutions that processed the site’s illegal drug transactions. Many of the sites had reported their source of income as something other than pharmaceutical sales, such as flower shops and clothing outlets. Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock announced that more than 3,000 sites were removed during the investigation. The sites included online drug shops, vendor pages on darkweb markets, and social media profiles used to distribute various narcotics.

This year’s operation ran from October 9 to October 16, 2018. United States law enforcement agencies that partipated in Operation Pangea XI included the FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs’ OCI; the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs’ OCI and Office of Enforcement and Import Operations; the FDA’s Office of Enforcement and Import Operations; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the Homeland Security Investigations. Law enforcement in 115 countries also helped, including the operation leader, Interpol; the European Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers; the World Customs Organization; and several other law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies.

“Criminals are now shipping packages containing smaller numbers of pills and tablets to try and avoid the more stringent checks which have become routine in many countries as a result of the Pangea operations,” Secretary General Stock said. “However, this year’s results again show the successes achieved globally in stopping potentially lethal products from reaching unsuspecting customers.”

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