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Baseball chief invites stiffer online-pharmacy laws

MLB's Bud Selig tells Congress that baseball executives "fully support" Congress' attempts to make it harder for Americans to get drugs online without a prescription.

In the lingering fallout from a damning report on steroid use by Major League Baseball players, the sport's top executive is calling on Congress to help in leading a crackdown on Internet pharmacies.

"Sen. Mitchell's report identified the difficulties inherent in any attempt, whether by baseball, by other professional sports, or by the Olympics, to stop by itself the use of illegal performance-enhancing substances," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told members of a U.S. House of Representatives panel at a hearing on the topic on Tuesday afternoon, according to prepared remarks (PDF). "We welcome your participation in attacking the problem at its source."

Selig, of course, was referring to 304 pages' worth of findings by George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator whom MLB hired in 2006 to investigate past steroid use by its players. The resulting document implicated star players, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Gary Sheffield, brothers Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Kevin Brown, and David Justice, and it described alleged illegal Internet-based purchases of performance-enhancing substances by 16 other players.

Selig told the committee that baseball executives "wholly support" a sweeping crime bill introduced last October by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) that attempts to rein in online pharmacies that dispense prescription drugs without valid permission from a doctor.

Biden's broader bill incorporates a standalone online pharmacy proposal, co-sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), that was already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.

Among other things, that proposal would require that Internet sites dispense "controlled substances," such as many widely used pain-killing narcotics, only after processing a valid prescription from a doctor who has given the patient at least one in-person evaluation. Pharmacies would also be required to display certain identifying information on their Web sites and state their compliance with the law. Failure to comply would carry steep fines and up to 20 years in prison.

It's hardly a new idea. Congress has been trying to pass legislation regulating online pharmacies since before the dot-com bust.

Feinstein first drafted such a bill shortly after a California high-school honor student and athlete named Ryan Haight died in 2001 from an overdose of the painkiller hydrocodone. According to Feinstein's office, Haight had purchased the drug from an online pharmacy after filling out a questionnaire, claiming he was a 25-year-old with back pain, and securing a prescription from a doctor who had never examined him in person.

It's not entirely clear whether the new legislation is needed. A federal law called the Controlled Substances Act already makes it illegal to dispense certain classes of drugs without a valid prescription from a physician.

Backers of the new Internet pharmacy bill say their measure would "clarify" that the law also applies online, but prosecutors on a regular basis using existing laws. Mitchell's own report also describes past raids on online steroid dealers by state and federal authorities.

There's also the international enforcement conundrum: About half of online pharmacy sites reside overseas, according to research described before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year by Joseph Califano, the chairman and president of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. About a fourth of the sites are based in the United States, and the remaining ones have unknown origins, he added.

Still, Biden, Sessions, and Feinstein each pointed to Selig's testimony as proof that their legislation should be passed promptly.

"Rogue online pharmacies have become the street corner drug dealers of the Information Age," Sen. Feinstein said in a statement Tuesday evening. "Whether it's a superstar or a teenager, we must ensure that they cannot obtain controlled substances without a valid prescription."