Making a Prescription for Disaster: How Online Drug Mills Make it Too Easy

If you asked Peggy Clinton about her husband two years ago, she would have told you that 41-year-old Al was happy, healthy, and ardently opposed to the recreational use of drugs. But that was before Al died suddenly from a toxic mix of heavy duty prescription painkillers he took along with an anti-anxiety drug that should never be used with a narcotic pain medication.

For Al, precious time was lost because Peggy thought her husband was just tired. By the time she realized Al would not wake up and was turning blue, she summoned an ambulance. She insisted to the medics that her husband had not taken any medications that night. Not until results of blood tests came back shortly before Al died at the emergency room did anyone know what he took. Al’s doctor could not provide this information because the physician did not prescribe any of the drugs he consumed.

Al is one of a growing number of people harmed through self-medicating made possible through the use of Internet-based Web “pharmacies” that really act more like prescription drug mills. Through these sites, more and more Americans are bypassing the usual routine of seeing a doctor and requesting a prescription to order potent drugs for themselves.

The drugs available at such sites include narcotic painkillers, sleeping pills, male “potency” drugs, stimulants like Ritalin, sedatives such as Xanax and Valium, and even weight loss drugs, some of which are no longer offered for sale by regular U.S. pharmacies because they have been deemed to be too dangerous. Without seeing the patient – and usually not talking with them either – someone considered a doctor writes a prescription on demand. These drug mills then fill the order and supply the drugs to anyone with a credit card or able to produce a bank money order.

There is not always much effort to determine whether the patient has a legitimate need for a particular medication. They also seem to do little to guarantee that the patient is an adult, despite the fact that most of these drugs are contraindicated for children.

But, although disbursement of these drugs in this manner is against local, state, and federal laws, clearly, the laws by themselves are not effective in keeping these drugs away from those who do not have a valid reason or prescription to have them. This occurs even though the War on Drugs in recent years has been largely rolled into the greater War on Terror.

Says Mary Jensen, a retired psychiatric nurse who worked in several outpatient and inpatient clinics with people coping with substance abuse issues, “You can’t rely on the police or the government to keep drugs out of the hands of those you love. If you want to protect your family members and friends, you have to watch for the signs of drug use yourself and then try to get the person the proper treatment.”

This is echoed by other mental health professionals who acknowledge that these online drug mills are making it far too easy for those with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems to obtain sometimes large quantities of different drugs which, when taken in combination, can be fatal. Like Jensen, they warn that Americans may have to monitor their own family members for signs of abuse.

“Don’t fall into the trap of believing only teenagers abuse drugs. It can start before the teen years and you can also see it in senior citizens. You wouldn’t believe how many people over the age of 50 or even 70 end up in drug treatment programs because they abuse prescription drugs to ignore depression, loneliness, grief, stress, and the typical symptoms of aging,” adds Jensen.

Some of the signs of someone ordering from prescription drug mills may include:

– Incoming packages, some from foreign addresses, that the person tries hard to conceal or invents elaborate stories to explain
– Related to the first item, a loved one who is suddenly very intent on being the one to pick up the mail or packages and then behaves secretly about their newly-found interest in this
– Unexplained charges on credit cards with ambiguous company names, often for an amount between $150 and $500
– Empty pill bottles or physician sample packs that appear in the trash which bear a pharmacy name from somewhere else in the country (or from a different country) and with the name of a physician you do not recognize
– Your loved one displays unusual behavior which may include appearing to be “high” or drugged
– You start to notice the loved one has much more difficulty in thinking clearly, waking up, or in performing basic tasks like driving
– You see your loved one taking pills you don’t recognize for which that person seems to have to invent an explanation; example: someone claims the brightly colored capsule they just took was an aspirin when the household aspirin is all small white tablets

For Peggy Clinton, many of the warning signs sound familiar now, in retrospect. In the two months before his death, she recalls nearly eleven hundred dollars in credit card charges he couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. She also says Al seemed very concerned about package delivery yet hid the contents of these packages when they arrived.

“The one clue I could kick myself for failing to notice is that Al, after months of insomnia, was suddenly dropping off to sleep in the middle of the evening. Then he was next to impossible to rouse. Bells should have gone off in my head but they didn’t. I wish I had it to do over again; maybe I’d still have Al then,” she notes sadly.

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