New Federal Criminal Law Targets Internet Drug Sales

A new federal criminal law directed at online pharmacies went into effect in April. We have represented many targets and potential targets of investigations and prosecutions involving these types of online pharmacies, as well as other drug prosecutions. Recent Internet drug sale laws may encompass more behavior than the primary reasons for their enactment.

The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act makes it illegal to distribute controlled substances that are prescription drugs over the Internet without a valid prescription or to advertise for such distribution. “Valid prescription” is defined as “a prescription that is issued for a legitimate medical purpose in the usual course of professional practice” by a practitioner who has evaluated the patient in person at least once or, if that practitioner is unavailable and has evaluated the patient in-person within the past year, then a practitioner whom he requests to evaluate the patient. The Act also permits states to sue online pharmacies and imposes registration and reporting requirements on certain online pharmacies.

The primary function of the Act is to address online pharmacies, which deliver controlled substances by means of the Internet. Its chief provisions amend 21 U.S.C. Section 841, a part of the Controlled Substances Act that lists illegal conduct and penalties. The new law is targeted at people and entities such as doctors, pharmacists and pharmacies, and web site owners involved with online pharmacies that issue and fill prescriptions for controlled substances based solely on completion of online medical questionnaires. It is not expressly limited to online pharmacies, however, or to the types of targets listed. Federal prosecutors may use this law against anyone who delivers, distributes, or dispenses a controlled substance by means of the Internet, or helps someone do so, without authorization.

Related to this new law, in 2006 the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (other aspects of which we discussed in this previous post) created a separate federal criminal law prohibiting Internet sales of certain so-called date rape drugs. One section of the Act amended Section 841 to impose a maximum sentence of twenty years on anyone who knowingly uses the Internet to distribute a date rape drug, knowing or with reasonable cause to believe that the recipient is not an authorized purchaser or the drug will be used in the commission of criminal sexual conduct. The Act defines “date rape drug” to include gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) and its analogues, including gamma butyrolactone (GBL) and 1,4-butanediol (1,4 BD,) as well as flunitrazepam (Rohypnol or roofies) and ketamine. These drugs are also often used recreationally, but the intended use is irrelevant to the law if the person distributing the drugs through use of the Internet knows or has reasonable cause to believe the recipient is not an authorized purchaser.

In addition to these laws punishing behavior broader than their purposes, there appears to be a statutory inconsistency between the Act’s suggestion that GBL and 1,4 BD are ‘analogues’ of GHB and the definition of “controlled substance analogue” set forth in 21 U.S.C. Section 802(32). Under that section, to prove that any particular substance is an analogue to GHB, the Government must prove, among other things, that the substance at issue is “substantially similar” in chemical structure to GHB. Based on what our firm has learned from handling cases involving these substances, it appears that a scientific consensus does not exist on the question of whether GHB is substantially similar in chemical structure to GBL and 1,4 BD. It will be interesting to follow this Act and the manner in which federal courts interpret these seemingly inconsistent provisions. As Internet crimes evolve, we will continue to monitor developments in the law.

The text of the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act is available here.
The text of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act is available here.
21 U.S.C. Section 841 is available here and 21 U.S.C. Section 802 is available here.

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