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Fight online drug facilitators

It's too easy for teens to get prescription meds.

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Close to 10 percent of high school seniors have used an addictive, dangerous prescription narcotic within the past year. This is more than 10 times the rate of heroin use. Only tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are abused more frequently. Many young people wrongly believe that prescription painkillers, even if taken without a prescription, are not addictive and are much safer than street drugs. They also say that prescription drugs are "available everywhere."

Although we don't know how much prescription narcotic drug abuse is fueled by Internet purchases, we can get a sense of their availability by going online. Search engines immediately identify thousands of websites that advertise drugs without prescription and offer to take any major credit card in payment. The reach of the Internet makes it as easy for American teens to buy drugs as it is for them to buy books or music. If the Internet is not already the primary enabler of this epidemic, it will soon.

Stiffer penalties on the sellers of these drugs will not make an appreciable dent in Internet sales. Most of the websites offering these drugs are hosted outside the United States, with the sellers well beyond the reach of US law enforcement. A site selling Vicodin without a prescription can be created on a computer in Uzbekistan, registered to a business address in Pakistan, and deposit payments to a Cayman Islands bank. The drugs can be produced in a country that doesn't require prescriptions for narcotics. To believe that international law-enforcement cooperation will make this globalized business dangerous for the sellers would be a tragic mistake.

Tougher standards for what constitutes a valid online prescription, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein's pending legislation would mandate, are important if the whole system of legitimate Internet sales of prescription drugs is not to collapse. But rogue pharmacies operating in lawless locations will continue selling narcotics to teenagers without prescriptions – or with the phoniest pretense of a prescription – happily using the unwitting cooperation of US search engines, Internet service providers, and credit-card companies. We need additional legislation to require the legitimate businesses that are key intermediaries in illegal online drug transactions to withdraw their assistance.

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