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Buying illicit pharmaceuticals from unregulated online drug stores is akin to playing Russian roulette



illicit pharmaceuticals

Police forces across the globe last month took part in an Interpol-backed operation that resulted in the seizure of 500 tonnes of illicit pharmaceuticals. Law enforcement agencies from more than 100 countries participated in the effort, intercepting and inspecting nearly one million packages. Among other bogus medicines and pharmaceutical products, they discovered fake anti-inflammatory medication, painkillers, erectile dysfunction pills, anabolic steroids, slimming pills and medicines for treating HIV, Parkinson’s and diabetes. Commenting on the operation, Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said its success was a sign that past efforts to crack down on the problem had achieved their goal. Stock noted that while more packages were intercepted during the most recent week of action, the quantity of illicit pharmaceuticals discovered was lower than was seen during previous campaigns.

But while this might suggest the organised crime networks behind the illicit pharmaceuticals trade have changed their tactics, it certainly does not mean they have gone away. The fact that fewer drugs were seized from more packages by officers taking part in Interpol’s last operation merely suggests those who sell illicit pharmaceuticals are sending out smaller batches of their illegal products through fear of them being intercepted.

Thanks largely to the rise of illicit online pharmacies on both the surface and dark web, it is now estimated by the World Health Organisation that 1% of medicines and pharmaceutical products in developed nations are either counterfeit or have been illegally diverted from official supply chains. In the developing world, it is thought that number could be as high as 10%. The consequences of this are not only negative for those who end up taking fake or smuggled medicines, but also for drug companies that plough some of their profits back into research. While some fake medicines contain toxic levels of an official drug’s active ingredient, which in and of itself can prove fatal in some cases, many are made up of harmful ingredients such as paint, rat poison, arsenic or floor wax, which obviously pose their own health risks.

Other bogus pharmaceuticals might only contain fairly benign ingredients such as corn starch, but can be equally as harmful if taken by a person who believes them to be the real deal. Patients taking medication for serious condition such as diabetes, schizophrenia, HIV/AIDS or cancer could suffer deadly consequences if fake medication does not contain the right levels of the active ingredient they need, no matter how harmless the substances that actually make them up may be.

The potential to do harm of genuine drugs diverted from official supply chains by criminals involved in the illicit pharmaceuticals trade can be equally as high. Back in January, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) revealed that organised crime gangs had been bribing pharmacists and wholesalers to supply them with prescription drugs illegally. The agency said it had made 40 arrests linked to the diversion of legitimate pharmaceutical products last year, including five pharmacists, who were suspended from practice. While some might question whether buying genuine drugs diverted from official supply chains has the potential to do as much harm as purchasing fake medicine, it is important to bear in mind that drugs are offered on a prescription-only basis for a reason.

In many cases, pharmaceutical medicines can be incredibly potent, and can bring about dangerous side effects in people who might be allergic to them, take other medication or suffer from conditions that could make the consumption of certain treatments ill-advised of even deadly. Aside from this, concerns have also been raised that organised criminals involved in diverting genuine drugs from official supply chains sell medicine that has passed its use-by date, after which time active ingredients might not be effective.

In Western nations, illicit online pharmacies that offer easy access to cheap medication that would typically only be available through a doctor for a higher price can be appealing to anybody who wants to save money or avoid having to see a medical professional. But more often than not, the medicine supplied by illicit pharmaceutical traders will be either counterfeit or diverted from official supply chains. As well potentially doing great harm to themselves, by buying drugs in this manner, illicit pharmacy customers are also taking profits away from drug firms. While many might argue this is no bad thing, it only results in big pharma increasing the price of existing products, and reducing the amount it invests in searching for new treatments that could help tackle some of the world’s most deadly diseases.

Risking your health taking illegal recreational drugs is one thing, but playing Russian roulette by buying illicit pharmaceuticals online when you might well be able to get the genuine treatment from your doctor is quite literally taking your life in your hands for little or no reason.

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Does Apple really deserve an award for its efforts to crack down on slavery and trafficking?



does Apple really deserve an award

Apple has announced its intention to employ victims of human trafficking in support roles at its retail stores after being handed a prestigious award for its efforts to eradicate modern slavery from its supply chains. The iPhone maker was handed the accolade at a glitzy ceremony in London last night by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which gives out the Stop Slavery Award to organisations it believes have gone the extra mile to identify and crack down on forced labour and abusive employment practices in their supply chains. After accepting the gong, Apple said it will work with the UN’s International Organisation for Migration to find employment at its retail outlets for survivors of modern slavery and forced labour.

But while Thomson Reuters heaped praise on the company for apparently being at the forefront of efforts to tackle labour abuses, some campaigners questioned the wisdom of giving the award to Apple, a firm that is no stranger to allegations that abusive employment practices have been used in its supply chains. Speaking with the BBC after news of Apple’s awards glory broke, Executive Director of China Labor Watch (CLW) Li Qiang described Thomson Reuters’ decision as a “joke”, arguing that Apple is doing nowhere near enough to tackle modern slavery at the factories that produce its products in his country, despite the huge resources the company has at its disposal.

While it may be the case that Apple has attempted to improve the way in which it deals with modern slavery and forced labour in its supply chains, a number of recent revelations support Li’s assertion that the technology giant might not have been the most worthy recipient of the Reuters award. Apple likes to make much of the initiatives it has in place to crack down on the mistreatment of workers by its suppliers, boasting in a report on human trafficking and slavery in its supply chains that it is raising “the bar every year to improve conditions and protect human rights”.

However, the fact that fewer stories appear in the press relating to sweatshop-like conditions at Apple-linked factories than used to be the case a decade ago should not necessarily be considered a reason to pat the firm on the back. In fact, revelations about abuses in the company’s supply chains still arise with alarming regularity, suggesting we might be wise to take pause to consider whether the largest company in the world by market value, which earlier this year became the first firm on the planet to be valued at over a trillion dollars, is doing all it can to tackle the issue.

Back in January, CLW said the suicide of 31-year-old worker at a Chinese factory where iPhones were made raised serious concerns about working conditions at the site. Li Ming is said to have leapt to his death from a building in the city of Zhengzhou owned by Foxconn, one of Apple’s largest suppliers. Apple has been accused of failing to tackle abuses at Foxconn facilities for years, and is said to have turned a blind eye to employees at the company’s plants being compelled to work gruellingly-long hours, and being exposed to humiliating punishments for failing to carry out orders.

In March, Apple’s own Supplier Responsibility Progress Report highlighted a number of labour violations in its supply chain, including an increase in the number of manufacturers breaking rules on working hours, and the “improper provision of wages and benefits”. The iPhone maker discovered 44 serious breaches of its compliance rules last year, including numerous instances of bonded labour, the falsification of working hours and two cases of underage workers. Only last month, it was widely reported that Apple was investigating claims that Chinese students had been forced to make its smartwatches while working on “compulsory internships” unrelated to their field of study. Some students said their tutors told them they would not be allowed to graduate on time if they failed to complete the “internships”, according to Hong Kong-based labour rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM).

It beggars belief not only that these types of abuses are still occurring with such regularity in Apple’s supply chains, but also that the company is now being handed awards for its efforts to stamp them out. If the iPhone maker invested a fraction of the money it spends on new product development and protecting its brand and patents into initiatives designed to eradicate modern slavery and abusive employment practices from its supply chains, its record would likely make it a much more worthy recipient of the accolade it was handed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But in light of Apple’s still-questionable record on abuse committed by its supplier companies, the handing over of the award seems little more than a cynical opportunity for both companies to virtue signal over the issue, while taking no real action to protect the vulnerable workers who are its victims.

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A no-deal Brexit will leave both Europe and Britain more exposed to terrorists and organised crime



no-deal Brexit will leave both Europe and Britain more exposed

With exactly five months to go until the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union, the 28-nation bloc appears no nearer to striking a deal with the British government over what Brexit will actually look like. Sticking to their “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” mantra, EU chiefs are understandably playing hardball with the UK, keen not to offer London a deal that might encourage other nations to bail out of the union. As things stand, a no-deal Brexit is looking increasingly likely, which would mean the UK crashing out of the EU with no 21-month transition period in March next year, forcing it to revert to World Trade Organisation rules on trade, withdraw fully from the customs union and lose membership of various European regulatory bodies overnight.

Remainers fear such a scenario could result in severe economic hardship for the least well-off in Britain, and might even cause food and drug shortages. Whether or not this actually comes to pass, what is more worrying is the two sides’ failure to arrive at an agreement on security cooperation. While it is one thing to use potential trade deals, free movement and citizen residency status as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations, it is quite another to play fast and loose with security partnerships on which Britain, the EU and the wider world depend.

Security arrangements should have been ring-fenced from the main Brexit negotiations from day one, allowing law enforcement agencies in Britain and the EU to continue sharing intelligence and crime-fighting tools regardless of what was agreed in other areas. The fact this did not happen means both Europe and the UK could be facing a less secure future, all on account of negotiators refusing to recognise that the safety of every citizen of the EU and Britain should take precedence over relatively petty squabbles over far less important matters.

Speaking with the BBC last week, Lynne Owens, chief of the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), warned that a no-deal Brexit could result in British investigators losing access to key crime-fighting tools such as the European Arrest Warrant and the shared Schengen information system database. Noting how the NCA is working closely with law enforcement partners across Europe over the potential security consequences of a no-deal Brexit, Owens said Britain’s ability to share intelligence and jointly investigate crimes could be significantly impacted, affecting UK law enforcement agencies’ fight against serious and organised crime.

For the EU’s part, it risks losing access to vital British intelligence if no deal can be struck. Speaking in June this year at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels, GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming told an audience that police in four European countries foiled planned terrorist operations last year thanks to intelligence provided by the UK. Fleming also highlighted how a number other European countries had enjoyed access to classified intelligence shared by Britain on cyber crime.

Just how much the UK stands to lose security-wise if it crashes out of the EU with no deal was last week laid bare in a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO). The agency warned that organised criminal networks are preparing to take full advantage of Britain’s failure to put systems in place to protect its borders once it leaves the union. In its report, the NAO cautions that the UK is on course not to deliver 11 out of the 12 critical border management upgrades that need to be in place before Brexit.

Commenting on the report, NAO boss Amyas Morse said: “Government has openly accepted the border will be sub-optimal if there is no deal with the EU on 29 March 2019. It is not clear what sub-optimal means in practice, or how long this will last. But what is clear is that businesses and individuals who are reliant on the border running smoothly will pay the price.”

It may well be the case that both sides in the Brexit negotiations are indulging in brinkmanship, and that a deal will be struck at the eleventh hour. But with time running out, things are coming dangerously close to the wire. If the UK crashes out of the EU, there will be a very real possibility that people in both Europe and Britain could be considerably less safe at the end of March next year than they are now. This will be a direct result of politicians using the issue as a bargaining chip in negotiations; a move that could end up making things much easier for organised criminal gangs and terrorist groups, and in a worst case scenario could even result in the loss of life.

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The failed war on drugs has made vulnerable communities victims of deadly new psychoactive substances



new psychoactive substances

A group of international researchers last month warned that new psychoactive substances (NPSs) such as synthetic cannabinoids Spice and K2 could be the cause of greater harm to users than more traditional mind-altering substances and stimulants including MDMA and cocaine. Presenting the findings of one the first major studies into the physiological and psychological effects of NPSs at the British Science Festival in the UK city of Hull in September, Professor Colin Davidson from the University of Central Lancashire, who led the research, revealed his team had discovered that so-called “legal highs” are more dangerous than traditional illegal drugs, and are in some cases more likely to induce conditions such as psychosis and schizophrenia. This will likely come as little surprise to anybody who has seen images of homeless Spice users on the streets of Britain, but should set alarm bells ringing, not least due to the fact that these types of drugs are increasingly being consumed by some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Despite bans on the substances in some countries such as the UK, NPSs can still be obtained quickly and easily in most places, regardless of whether restrictions on their sale and possession are in force. Hundreds of different variants of so-called legal highs are available for purchase on dark net marketplaces, the surface web, social media platforms, and from illicit street dealers, who have added them to the range of substances they sell in regions where they are banned. In most cases, NPSs will be much cheaper to buy than the substances they are intended to mimic, be that cocaine, cannabis or opioids.

Prior to the ban in the UK, which came into force in May 2016, campaigners expressed concern that outlawing the drugs would push users to start taking what were at the time viewed as more hazardous substances, such as heroin and crack cocaine. Evidence suggests that quite the opposite has happened, with vulnerable users such as prisoners and the homeless using legal highs at ever increasing levels, attracted by the relatively cheap oblivion they offer compared to other drugs. Many addicts who have been hooked on traditional hard drugs have said substances such as Spice are the worst things they have ever taken.

As is the case with much of the illicit fentanyl flooding into the US, the majority of legal highs that are sold in the West are produced by Chinese drugs factories, many of which have few qualms about selling their products to dealers in countries in which their distribution and/or possession is banned. While the Chinese government has paid lip service to stemming the flow of NPSs produced on its soil being shipped to other countries, occasionally listing new batches of the drugs as controlled substances, its interventions seem to have had little real impact on supply, with the distribution of fentanyl in the US and substances such as Spice and Monkey Dust in Europe remaining at a near constant.

When they first emerged, a range of drug users were attracted to trying so-called legal highs, either on account of the ease of their availability, low cost, or the novelty of sampling something different. But over the past few years, evidence suggests wealthier drug users have turned back to consuming traditional substances such as cocaine and ecstasy as more has been has been learned about the negative effects of NPSs, leaving vulnerable and marginalised people the most likely to take legal highs. A 2017 report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed an increase in the number of vulnerable people injecting NPSs, and said that so-called legal highs continued to represent a considerable public health challenge for European countries. The study noted that while “negative consumer attitudes” may have had an impact on demand for NPSs across the EU, problematic use of the drugs was becoming more apparent among vulnerable communities, resulting in an increase in associated levels of both physical and mental health problems.

Far from pushing vulnerable addicts to use what were once perceived to be more harmful substances, a tightening of the law around so-called legal highs in some countries appears to have had the opposite effect, with increasing numbers of marginalised people turning to NPSs on account of their low price, ease of access and the total oblivion they offer. The irony here is that if it were not for the decades-long failed war on drugs, the scientists behind NPSs would have no reason to create them. As such, it is hardly surprising that banning these substances has not solved the problems they created. As things stand, it would seem as though years of poorly thought-through global drugs policy has resulted in the creation of a whole new class of substances that appear to be devastating our most vulnerable communities.




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