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

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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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The deadly codeine-based cough syrup cocktail US pop culture is spreading across the globe

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codeine-based cough syrup

Back in the early 2000s, drug users in search of alternative experiences were able to turn to websites selling a new generation of substances that were at the time referred to as “research chemicals”. For a number of years, seemingly exciting new ways in which to get high were available at the click of a mouse from companies based mostly in the US, which sold these drugs globally ostensibly solely for the purposes of scientific research. Those who wished for something a little different from more traditional illicit substances such as cocaine, ecstasy or LSD were able to obtain obscurely-titled chemicals such as 5-MeO-DMT or 1-propionyl-lysergic acid diethylamide, many of which aimed to mimic the effects of MDMA or psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

At the time, narcotics enthusiasts viewed the online availability of research chemicals as ushering in a new era in which they would be able to easily get their hands on an ever-changing and evolving menu of exotic substances. Over a number of years, many of these chemicals morphed into so-called legal highs, which were sold legitimately as an alternative to the illicit drugs they were intended to emulate. Now outlawed in many countries, these drugs are now mostly consumed by members of vulnerable groups such as prisoners and the homeless, having been largely rejected by recreational users.

Nearly 20 years on from the controversy that surrounded the online availability of research chemicals, the imagined future of an endless supply of new psychedelic substances has failed to become a reality. Instead, recreational drug users have by and large returned to using more traditional substances, while at the same time beginning to abuse prescription medicines in greater number – a practice that has become particularly popular among young people. Peculiar as it may have sounded just after the turn of the millennium, instead of experimenting with then-unheard-of new drugs, the youth of today have turned to prescription medication used to treat conditions such as anxiety, attention deficit disorder and pain, such as Xanax, Adderall and Percocet. Somewhat more bizarrely, young people across the world are increasingly abusing a drug derived from codeine-based cough syrups, a cultural phenomenon that was first made popular by rap artists in the US during the 1990s.

Commonly referred to as Purple Drank or Purple Lean, the substance is made by mixing prescription-strength cough syrup with fizzy pop drinks or sweets. Once consumed, Purple Lean provides users with a sense of euphoria and dissociation from the body. While long-term use can lead to addiction and a whole host of health problems, as with any opiates taken in large enough doses, Purple Lean can kill. The chances of dying from a codeine overdose while drinking Purple Lean rise significantly when it is consumed with other drugs or alcohol. While taking the drug has been popular in the US for more than two decades, evidence suggests that its use is spreading to other countries, thanks in no small part to a new generation of American rappers who advocate its benefits in their songs.

A recent investigation conducted by UK radio station LBC revealed that British children are making Purple Lean after obtaining liquid codeine from drug dealers on Instagram. One UK user told the broadcaster that he became interested in the drug after watching rappers consume it on social media. The rising popularity of Purple Lean both inside and outside of the US has been very much driven by depictions of its use on online platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, with a study published last year by the JMIR Public Health Surveillance journal finding that “the prevalence of codeine misuse images, glamorising of ingestion with soda and alcohol, and their integration with mainstream, popular culture imagery holds the potential to normalise and increase codeine misuse and overdose”.

In Nigeria, the abuse of codeine-based cough syrup became such as issue that the country’s government last year banned the production and importation of such products after a BBC investigation revealed that teenagers were becoming addicted. Ministers said at the time that the ban would apply to all sales of cough syrup containing the drug without a prescription across the whole country, and that no new import licences for codeine as an ingredient for cough syrup would be issued.

Abusing cough mixture might well sound absurd to members of the so-called “Trainspotting Generation” who were more used to taking substances such as heroin and ecstasy in the 1990s, but consuming Purple Lean can be equally as addictive and deadly as almost anything they might have taken while they were young. It is not without reason that some people refer to the drug as “liquid heroin”. While the feared advent of an age in which an ever-changing array of new substances would be available online has not materialised, it is perhaps more alarming that young people are now becoming addicted and in some cases dying as a result of consuming medicine that is routinely kept in many people’s bathroom cabinets.

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Opinion

International pickpocketing gangs must be treated as serious and organised criminal networks

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International pickpocketing gangs

While most members of the public perceive pickpocketing as a petty crime, conducting the activity at scale can be a hugely profitable business for organised criminal networks. So much so in fact, that gang bosses in Eastern Europe routinely send cells of pickpockets out on to the streets of major cities such as London, Paris and Oslo to fleece members of the public of their cash and valuables. Taking advantage of EU freedom of movement laws, these groups are dispatched to target people in city centres, on public transport networks, and at major sporting events and music festivals.

The substantial sums of money that can be made from organised pickpocketing make it possible for gang bosses to regularly move the petty thieves who work for them around Europe as part of their efforts to make sure police in one location do not become too familiar with their faces. Thanks to the cheap and easy availability of budget air travel, pickpocketing cells can be sent out from countries such as Romania or Bulgaria to work in one location for a few weeks, before returning back to their home countries and then being sent off somewhere else.

In most cases, the foot soldiers used by pickpocketing gangs will be paid relatively small sums of money for their work, and are considered largely expendable by the bosses for whom they work. Conversely, those at the top of the criminal organisations that run these types of operations are able to fund lives of luxury, all the while keeping themselves at arm’s length from the illegal activities from which they profit. This makes it much less likely they will be apprehended by law enforcement. For the most part, the pickpockets themselves are vulnerable people such as the homeless or migrant children who would be better described as victims of human trafficking than organised criminals. Most often recruited from the streets of their home countries, they are sent out to thieve from people in the streets of Europe’s major cities, while typically living in extremely poor conditions themselves.

Instead of treating the issue as a petty crime, law enforcement agencies across Europe and in other countries are belatedly beginning to view this type of activity for what it is; serious and organised criminality that has the potential to fund other illegal acts. Earlier this month, Europol held a conference on the subject at its headquarters in The Hague, convening scores of experts from member states and beyond to share their experiences of tackling organised pickpocketing gangs. Delegates agreed that stronger international cooperation would be required to defeat the criminal organisations behind these types of operations, and that law enforcement agencies in different countries must become better at “exchanging information and to support each other in investigations, operations and regarding strategic approaches”.

Europol and its partners are right to take the problem more seriously than it has been in the past, with a number of recent cases highlighting how organised pickpocketing gangs are continuing to capitalise on the fact that the crime is widely perceived as being petty and low-level in comparison to other forms of organised illicit activity such as drug trafficking and immigration crime. In September 2017, police in Greece broke up a prolific Albanian pickpocketing gang, members of which were said to be raking in more than €3,500 ($3,910) a day while targeting visitors to tourist hotspots and on public transport in Athens. It is thought the gang may have operated in and around the city for nearly a decade. In Paris last year, members of an organised Bosnian crime gang that was thought to have made almost €3 million by forcing migrant children onto the streets of the French capital to thieve from members of the public were charged with running a human trafficking network. At the end of April, Extra.ie reported that organised pickpocketing gangs from Romania were flying multiple cells of street thieves into Ireland on budget airlines to target pensioners as they took cash out of ATMs.

Currently, it is all too rare that the leaders of the networks behind organised pickpocketing operations face justice for their crimes, the most heinous of which is arguably the exploitation of the vulnerable foot soldiers they compel to do their bidding. While arresting and imprisoning Individual street thieves much lower down the pecking order might temporarily slow incidents of this sort of crime in any given area, they are quickly replaced by the gang leaders for whom they work. If global law enforcement agencies are to stand any real chance of reducing organised pickpocketing on the streets of the world’s major cities, the practice must be treated with the same vigour as any other form or serious and organised crime, and that means going after the gang kingpins who profit most from it.

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Opinion

Why counterfeiters are still able to operate all but freely on the surface web

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counterfeiters are still able to operate all but freely on the surface web

New technology such as the dark web, virtual currencies and encrypted messaging apps have revolutionised the manner in which most forms of serious and organised crime are carried out. These days, illicit networks involved in activities such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, organised immigration crime, child sexual exploitation and the poaching of endangered wildlife will typically use digital tools to some degree during the course of their operations. In the majority of cases though, these networks are not so keen on using internet-related technology out in the open, preferring instead for obvious reasons to tap tools that keep their businesses hidden from the eyes of law enforcement agencies and members of the wider public.

Counterfeiters, on the other hand, have been able take full advantage of the growth of the surface web across the world, seemingly able to circumvent the woefully inadequate measures put in place to crack down on their illicit activities with ease. While it may be the case that some counterfeiters sell their bogus products through closed social media groups, the nature of their business and the lax controls put in place to prevent them from operating mean many have few qualms about trading in plain sight.

While it is of course quite right that illicit narcotics and the body parts of endangered species cannot be traded openly on the surface web, it has to be asked why the availability of counterfeit goods online remains so widespread, in spite of law enforcement agencies around the world and big technology firms repeatedly promising to take more serious action against the peddlers of fake products on the internet. Considering that the proceeds from the sale of counterfeit goods are routinely used to fund other forms of organised crime and terrorism, and that fake items pose a significant health and safety risk to the consumers who end up buying them, it is a wonder that this issue is not taken a lot more seriously than it is.

If anything, the problem appears to be getting worse, with a report published in March by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU’s Intellectual Property Office revealing that pirated and counterfeit goods now account for 3.3% of all global trade. The study estimated that the worldwide value of counterfeit and pirated goods was $509 billion in 2016, the latest year for which data was available, which was up from $461 billion in 2013. The authors of the report noted that the increase had coincided with a time during which online trading platforms had made it much easier for the criminal networks that produce fake goods to sell to a growing global customer base.

Earlier this week, the US Better Business Bureau (BBB) published a new study in which it warned that America is facing a counterfeit epidemic, noting that one in four of the country’s online shoppers have bought a fake item online, losing on average $350 each. “Almost anything that can be shipped can be counterfeited and sold online, including everyday products such as printer ink, headphones, phone chargers, athletic shoes, cosmetics, and even car parts,” the BBB said in its report.

After explaining what consumers should do to avoid falling victim to online counterfeiters, the non-profit makes a number of recommendations, calling for credit card processors to deny merchant accounts to sellers of counterfeit goods, and suggesting a system that would allow victims to claim chargebacks from their card provider after buying a fake item. While the BBB also called for the further investigation of Chinese websites that sell fake goods, it fell short of demanding that ecommerce platforms such as Amazon and eBay that profit from third-party sellers offering bogus items face meaningful penalties for doing so.

Speaking with CBS News last month, Amazon’s Vice President of Consumer Trust and Partner Support Dharmesh Mehta told viewers that the online retail giant is making progress when it comes to reducing the number of counterfeit items available on the company’s website. He was speaking just weeks after US President Donald Trump demanded that ecommerce platforms do more to crack down on the sale of counterfeit products by third-party vendors. Mehta admitted that Amazon is a long way off eradicating fake items being offered by third parties, and he is not wrong. Perusing product categories that are commonly targeted by counterfeiters on Amazon, it does not take an expert in intellectual property to see that the site is flooded with fake items.

This will almost certainly remain the case while platforms on which third party sellers are allowed to trade face no real action for allowing counterfeits to be sold. Instead of equipping consumers with the knowledge they need to avoid falling victim to counterfeiters online, organisations such as the BBB could spend their time more wisely lobbying for meaningful punishments for legitimate ecommerce sites that facilitate and profit from the global trade in bogus goods.

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