Pubdate: Mon, 15 Mar 2004
Source: Daily Herald (IL)
Copyright: 2004 The Daily Herald Company
Author: Tona Kunz, Daily Herald Staff Writer


Mary Parks, a prescription drug addict a decade ago, remembers well how she 
would replenish her stash.

She'd call in fake prescriptions to drug stores. Much of her free time was 
spent traveling to different pharmacies so no one would notice her habit.

Others less savvy, she recalls, would visit several doctors simultaneously, 
making up ailments that would require pain killers. But they often were 
thwarted by computer databases in doctors' offices and chain pharmacies 
that flagged the frequent visits.

Today's addicts don't fear recognition or being caught in a lie. Gone is 
the barrier to addiction for the timid or time-pressed.

A click on the computer keyboard sends an order off to a pharmaceutical 
company in Asian countries or Mexico - "no prescription needed," Web sites 

"Thank God I got sober before that," says Parks, a resident of Hinsdale and 
co-founder of Pills Anonymous chapters in DuPage County. "I don't even want 
to learn about it. It might give me ideas."

But others are learning about the ease of online drug purchases, which are 
fueling an upswing in addictions.

According to congressional testimony this month, emergency-room visits 
related to abuse of narcotic pain relievers have increased nationwide 163 
percent since 1995. Health officials estimate 6.2 million Americans abused 
prescription drugs in 2002.

Pills Anonymous, a support and recovery group similar to Alcohol Anonymous, 
has witnessed more addicts each month fueling their habits by buying drugs 

Those addicts filter in and out of the group, as the constant temptation of 
buying drugs from foreign companies not regulated by the U.S. government 
makes kicking the habit harder than ever before.

The anonymity of buying makes it elusive to get a handle on the number of 
online addicts.

"It is virtually impossible to know what you do at home on the Internet," 
said Ed Childress, special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. 
Also, doctors don't isolate drug-abuse statistics by form or use. That 
means people abusing prescription painkillers are lumped in with heroin 
addicts, under the broad heading of opiate users.

Middle-aged abusers

Suburban doctors and substance abuse counselors say the number of adults 
coming in for help with prescription drug addiction has doubled or tripled 
in the past year at area hospitals - and most report having surfed the Web 
to get their fixes.

"Patients come in here and talk about the amounts of pills they are getting 
in the mail," said Beth Sack, program coordinator of chemical dependency 
services at Linden Oaks Hospital in Naperville. "It is appalling."

Most abusers are middle-aged, health experts say.

"They may have used it when they were younger for pain, and now they find 
they can get it on the Internet," said Linda Lewaniak, clinical director 
for chemical dependency services at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health 
Hospital in Hoffman Estates, where the number of patients abusing 
prescription drugs via the Internet has doubled in the past year.

Health officials fear, though, that teens soon will make up a larger chunk 
of online addicts. School nurses have reported an increase in teens talking 
about using prescription drugs to get high. Lewaniak said she has seen a 
few teens trickling into therapy, and that could be the beginning of a new 
trend here.

Often, the type of local user, as well as the drug of choice, mirrors 
earlier trends on the coasts, where the drugs originate, or in larger 
cities. Nationally, 14 percent of teenagers report abusing prescription 
drugs. One out of every 10 high school seniors last year had abused the 
painkiller Vicodin, making it the second-most popular drug after marijuana, 
DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said.

'No problem!!!'

The rise in Internet purchases of prescription drugs took off on the East 
and West coasts in the mid-1990s. The Midwest has been experiencing the 
phenomenon only in the past few years, the DEA's Childress said.

That doesn't surprise health and law enforcement officials, who typically 
see the Midwest lag behind in drug trends. As a trend builds steam in one 
state, a user or dealer will spread the news to friends elsewhere.

"These things aren't random," Childress said. "Somebody introduces a new 
drug or a new strategy on a way to obtain a drug and it takes off."

Recently, Web sites have launched marketing campaigns. E-mail spam provides 
links to overseas pharmacies that offer such come-ons as "No prescription? 
No problem!!! Order from online overseas pharmacies. SAVE UP TO 80% - NO 

The Bush administration this month announced plans to work with Internet 
service providers to develop pop-up ads warning visitors about these Web 
sites and that the "no prescription needed" line is a lie.

"As a citizen of the United States, you can't just have something shipped 
to you," Childress said. "You have to have a license to get controlled 

The DEA has closed down a few pharmacies and physicians importing large 
volumes of drugs without valid prescriptions, but crackdowns abroad have 
been less fruitful.

"Most of these (Web) sites change very regularly," Childress said. "That 
makes it more difficult to trace them and track them down. We don't, of 
course, regulate the Internet, and technology advances by leaps and bounds 
almost daily."

Even if agents are lucky enough to trace the site back to a pharmaceutical 
company overseas, they then need the help of the local government to issue 
an indictment. Childress wouldn't disclose how many governments have agreed 
to enforce American import laws, saying only that "We work very closely 
with our counterparts in foreign countries."

Meanwhile, the flow of prescription drugs into this country continues.

"We even had a patient receive a package (of pills) from Mexico while in 
treatment," said Richard Ready, medical director of New Day Center of 
Hinsdale Hospital.

Law enforcement officials have asked Internet providers to regulate who 
puts up sites on their system, and there has been some talk of charging 
U.S.-based Web servers as brokers in the drug transactions, but no action 
has been taken.

U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, introduced legislation to 
set requirements for displaying drug information online, but it's a fine 
line between stopping abusers and still allowing people with legitimate 
prescriptions to shop for values online.

And that still leaves the question of how to monitor foreign servers.

"We are aware of it," Childress said, "and we are very diligently working 
on that problem."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager