One-click shopping for illegal drugs

Assistant Professor of Psychology Robert Forman

Photo by Mark Stehle

The advance of the Internet has made purchasing everything from clothes to groceries virtually hassle-free. Now, add the purchase of illegal drugs and legal drugs without a prescription to that list.

Do a simple Google search of “no prescription codeine” and there’s a 50 percent chance the first web site that pops up will be one on which you can purchase the drugs without a doctor’s script. Type in “marijuana” and about 94 out of the first 100 sites listed on Google will offer seeds for sale.

There are also sites that overtly sell opium, coca and peyote, and prescription-free Viagra and Prozac.

This unprecedented access to drugs has formed the base of Assistant Professor of Psychology Robert Forman’s new research, conducted with Psychology technician Övgü Kaynak. Their findings on easy access to opiates were published in the Aug. 20 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Most websites offer discreet or “stealth shipping,” designed to foil customs officials. One site devoted to growing poppies—the plant from which morphine and heroin derive— has a recipe for non-opium tea, but also offers instructions on how to brew opium tea. Another displays specific poppy-growing directions lifted from the Drug Enforcement Agency archives.

Forman, who is also a member of Penn’s Treatment Research Institute, got interested in this topic after he learned a colleague had gotten hooked on drugs and easily bought them over the Internet. Forman was floored when he learned that most web sites require very little personal information to order. Some even accept payment only in cash.

“I’m interested as a scientist to discover a phenomenon that’s occurring [across] the globe,” he said. Since late 1998 or early 1999, people have utilized the unregulated power of the Internet to order drugs.

Brokers, or middlemen, may be based in United States, who then pass orders to companies based in countries such as the Virgin Islands or India, where there are few to no regulations on prescription medications. Drugs may be shipped from a third location. This filtered process makes prosecution very difficult, if not impossible, he said.

Forman stressed that those with access to the Internet may actually be safer from arrest and prosecution when purchasing drugs than those with no technological access. “If … you’re buying drugs the old-fashioned way, you’re subject to old-fashioned consequences,” he said.

Ninety-three percent of college students have Internet access, and 61 million people use the Internet in the U.S. every day, including teens who may be vulnerable to drug experimentation. “Parents need to understand it’s not just dirty pictures kids are going to find on the Internet,” said Forman. “People are overdosing and dying and the reality is, kids are buying drugs online.”

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Originally published on November 13, 2003