RX for a public health problem

A public-private partnership at HLS looks to limit illegal Internet drug sales

Recent studies show an alarming spike in illegal Internet sales of Vicodin, OxyContin and other highly addictive or dangerous drugs to teenagers who don’t have prescriptions.

And, while the government struggles to devise an effective strategy for cutting off these sales, Professor Philip Heymann ’60 is coming up with a plan–with a little help from his friends.

Heymann has assembled a panel of leading public and private experts from law enforcement, diplomacy, business and academia–including HLS colleagues William Stuntz and Jonathan Zittrain ’95 and several faculty members from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government–to design a tourniquet to stem the flow of illegal prescription drugs into the U.S. from sellers in countries whose governments can’t or won’t shut them down. Morris Panner ’88, CEO of OpenAir Inc. in Boston and former deputy chief of the narcotics section of the U.S. Department of Justice, is directing the project.

“Any 15-year-old with a credit card can do a Google search for Vicodin and find international sellers within seconds,” says Heymann. “The challenge of this problem is that it involves an extremely complicated set of arrangements cutting across international borders–using Web sites and search engines, transferring money in ingenious ways and taking advantage of foreign governments that are either not equipped to deal with them or not inclined to do so.”

Some prescription drugs are lawfully sold online, mainly by legitimate sellers in the U.S. and Canada who verify buyers’ prescriptions. But illegal Web sites are proliferating, run by anonymous traders in unknown locations beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. Although most payments are made through major credit cards, tracing them can be difficult.

“Preventing advertising and sales over the Internet and getting the credit card companies and banks to shut down the payment systems–these are only parts of the problem,” Heymann says. “Diplomatic incentives are another part, to discourage countries from letting this go on.”

About 6.5 million teenagers abused the prescription painkillers Vicodin or OxyContin last year, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Much of the access to these drugs is by Internet sales.

Heymann’s panel has already met several times at HLS and expects by year’s end to produce a set of recommendations that would foster cooperation among various government branches, private companies, banking and credit card companies, Internet service providers and search engine companies like Yahoo and Google. Diplomatic initiatives are also on the table. While the group is open to all possible fixes, including legislative action, an underlying premise of its mission is that the problem cannot be fixed through any single mechanism, and will depend largely on voluntary compliance and initiatives by private companies in the financial and information technology industries, working with law enforcement.