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Online Pharmacies | Safety, Legality, & Warnings

Published on September 16, 2021
Online Pharmacies | Safety, Legality, & Warnings

You might choose to use an e-commerce platform to order your medications because:

  • it’s convenient and you can order meds from your couch anytime
  • you have total privacy
  • products are shipped straight to your door
  • you can compare prices
  • prices tend to be lower than local pharmacies
  • you may be able to order and receive your medications without the hassle of getting or entering a proper prescription
  • you can order controlled substances that you would never be able to get at your local pharmacy 

If these last points don’t sound entirely legal, it’s because they aren’t. And while some legitimate online pharmacies are safe to use and comply with all FDA rules and regulations, the vast majority of pharmacy websites operating today do not.

The Problem With Online Pharmacies

If you buy prescription medications from a disreputable internet pharmacy or other online sellers, you put yourself at risk of serious physical harm, legal jeopardy, and even death. 

Counterfeit Or Mislabeled Medications

In order to maximize profit, fake online pharmacies may send expired, counterfeit, or mislabeled medications (including illicit substances like fentanyl) instead of the real drug you ordered. 

These counterfeit substances, which are typically made in underground labs in other nations like China and India, may not be as effective as the real drug, or maybe unsafe or even dangerous if taken. Dosage errors, unexpected side effects, and health risks are common. 

Personal Information At Risk

These unregulated sites may also collect your personal and financial information, siphoning it up and selling it to any interested party willing to pay.

Legitimate Vs. Fraudulent Online Pharmacies

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), an international association of state pharmacy organizations, attempted to review, identify, and understand how online pharmacy websites were influencing the drug supply chain in North America. 

The NABP answered questions such as:

  • How many of these sites require valid prescriptions?
  • How many have an accurate physical address and phone number?
  • What drugs are available for sale?
  • Where are the drugs coming from?
  • What drugs are actually being provided?
  • How are these sites marketing themselves?
  • How many sites are complying with national and international regulatory standards and best practices?

In the report, the NABP reviewed 11,688 online pharmacies and found that 97% were operating outside of compliance with regulators and practice standards. 

Only 3% were rated NABP Accredited/Approved, with another 2% lacking any “egregious” violations but not fully meeting the standard for NABP accreditation.

According to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), at any given time there are 35,000 online pharmacies operating, and around 96% of these do not comply with applicable laws and pharmacy standards 

The Difficulty Determining If A Web Pharmacy Is Safe & Legit

Selling prescription drugs and controlled substances is a lucrative international business, and even if you generally understand how to evaluate a website for legitimacy, you may not be able to easily tell if any particular online pharmacy is safe or not based on their website design. 

These sites may use professional web designers and often feature false information. They may claim to be a “Canadian Pharmacy” and state that all their activities and prescription medicines are “safe, legal, and 100% approved” in FAQ sections. 

Even licensed pharmacists and healthcare providers can have trouble telling the difference between approved and fraudulent sites at first glance.

How To Tell The Difference Between Legitimate & Fraudulent Pharmacies

First, check the URL. The NABP and ASOP have developed a system known as VIPPS (verified internet pharmacy practice sites) to help identify legitimate pharmacy sites. 

Approved and accredited sites have the ability to include a pharmacy in the web address of their page. Only approved and recommended online pharmacies have access to this URL element.

You can also visit ASOP and use their pharmacy checker to determine whether a site is fraudulent or approved, and why.

According to the FDA, legitimate pharmacy sites will also always have the following four features in common:

  1. they require a valid prescription
  2. they have a physical address in the United States
  3. they are licensed by both the state board of pharmacy in your current state, and the state in which they are operating 
  4. they have a state-licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions

Is The Online Pharmacy Problem Getting Better?

Unfortunately, no. 

Despite national and international efforts, underground overseas labs continue to pump out cheap, potent synthetic drugs of every kind, mailing them directly to consumers on the other side of the world with tragic results. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought on a surge of illicit pharmacy activity.

Americans and others look for any source of drugs that may potentially cure or prevent the COVID-19 disease, or help with the pain, stress, and despair that large-scale lockdowns, employment changes, and political upheaval have caused.

If you or a loved one struggles with prescription drug abuse, please contact us to learn about our treatment options.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

ASOP Global - Find Safe Online Pharmacies in the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - BeSafeRx For the Media
National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) - Internet Drug Outlet Report August 2017
National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) - Rogue Rx Activity Report May 2020

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