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Study: Prescription-free drug sites still abound

Columbia University survey finds that while there's been a sharp decline in the number of Web sites selling controlled drugs, often sans prescription, their existence is still a problem.

Improved e-mail filtering and government crackdowns might've deterred some of the once-ubiquitous spammers peddling prescription-free Viagra on the Web, but a new study from Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has found that many of those sites are still alive and kicking.

The CASA study, resulting from its fifth annual "You've Got Drugs!" investigation, did find that there has been a decline in the total count of Web sites hawking controlled drugs: 365 of them, compared to 581 in 2007's study.

But it's still alarming, CASA said, because few of them require prescriptions for products that can be dangerously addictive. Forty-two percent of the sites said up-front that no prescription was required, 45 percent offered "online consultations," and 13 percent didn't mention prescriptions. Even for the sites that did require prescriptions, fraud could be easily committed because many accepted prescriptions via fax.

And despite the gray-market drug industry's reputation for specializing in male enhancement products, CASA's study found that the controlled drugs sold online most prolifically are benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium), opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin, and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.

"This problem is not going away," CASA chairman and president Joseph Califano said in a release Wednesday. "It is morphing into different outlets for controlled prescription drug trafficking like Internet script mills and membership sites that sell lists of online pharmacies, and different payment methods like e-checks, COD (cash on delivery), and money orders."

On the brighter side, CASA praised the U.S. government for legislation that cracks down on the online sale of controlled drugs, and it recommended further measures: negotiating with foreign governments, for example, or getting search engines to block ads from unlicensed pharmacies.

One of the most high-profile drug-hawking spammers, Christopher William Smith, was sentenced last year to 30 years behind bars. His online pharmacy had been a $24 million operation.