Amazon’s Illegal Drug Dealing: Steroids, Muscle Relaxants, and Prescription Drugs

Health and medicine explained.
May 29 2014 8:46 AM

Amazon’s Illegal Drug Dealing

Steroids, muscle relaxants, and prescription antibiotics delivered right to your door.

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I asked Catlin to check if Amazon has allowed the products back yet again. Sure enough, Amazon continues selling dangerous steroids and stimulants banned in sports and at least one drug regulated by the DEA, M-Drol, which contains the anabolic steroid methasterone. It is illegal to sell methasterone without a prescription and a DEA license. The DEA warned about methasterone in 2011, and this specific product has been recalled, yet it keeps making its way back onto Amazon. Amazon also trades in many compounds that are dangerous to the human body and banned by anti-doping agencies but aren’t yet illegal. One example is trenavar, marketed as TR3N, which is a “prohormone” that the body converts into another active compound. That compound is trenbolone, a DEA-controlled anabolic steroid. There’s nothing unusual about prodrugs as pharmaceuticals. We use many prescription prodrugs in daily medical practice, all regulated by the FDA, that become active only when processed inside the human body. That the DEA can’t easily regulate prodrugs of scheduled substances like trenbolone is simply an artifact of the outdated legislation that created the agency. 

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M-Drol, which contains the anabolic steroid methasterone, is regulated by the DEA.

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That’s a situation Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Orrin Hatch hope to change with the bipartisan Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2014. The legislation promises to modernize the DEA’s governing rules by empowering it to respond to the exploding supplement industry, which has realized enormous profits by slightly tweaking controlled and prescription-only compounds to elude enforcement. These designer drugs are being marketed on outlets like Amazon before the DEA and FDA can react. “Right now, in order to classify new substances as steroids, the DEA must complete a burdensome and time-consuming series of chemical and pharmacological testing,” Sen. Whitehouse told me. He says the law would permit DEA to temporarily schedule new designer steroids as controlled substances, proactively protecting consumers from companies that are exploiting a loophole in current law. 

Yet Amazon is already selling prescription drugs and at least one scheduled substance in violation of current laws. It's unclear whether the new bill will do anything more than add to a growing list of unlawful commerce on the site, should it generate similar respect as current law. If the DEA and FDA only conduct flashy package intercepts like Operation Pangea, they won't be doing much to stop the root problem, the Amazon marketplace itself. Yet unlike some of the fly-by-night companies federal agencies have targeted in the past, Amazon is listed on the NASDAQ. It has the capacity to reform its business model and operate on the straight and narrow.

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The Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies represents a coalition of payment processors, shippers, and online service providers including Google, UPS, Visa, and MasterCard that all understand their platforms are being used for illegal pharmaceutical commerce. The organization believes that by banding together and sharing strategies to combat this criminal activity, they’re an important complement to the work of the FDA and DEA. The organization provides consumers a searchable database to check if a given website is a legal pharmacy. It shouldn’t surprise readers at this point that Amazon is not listed. The organization is proud of the fact that last year alone its member companies blocked or removed more than 5 million websites that illegally distribute prescription drugs, says Marjorie Clifton, CSIP’s executive director. “We want and invite companies like Amazon to join us,” Clifton says, adding that for Amazon to do so it will need to “sign on to a principles of participation document that outlines how our member companies interact in this space.” She wants Amazon to know that it is not alone in coming to terms with the fact that their platform is facilitating illegal drug sales. “All our partners have had to face this at one time or another.”

I asked Amazon public relations manager Erik Fairleigh a number of specific questions about how illegal products make it through to the site to end up being sold to Amazon customers. I wanted to know if Amazon employees manually review each product before it is listed, why products are removed following reporting like this only to reappear later on the site, and if Amazon considers itself protected from liability when third-party distributors are selling illegal products to Amazon’s customers. Fairleigh declined to answer these questions, but he did point me to Amazon’s policy on counterfeiting, which attempts to distance the company from the third-party sellers in its marketplace by saying “it is each seller’s responsibility to source and sell only authentic products.” The policy goes on to state that, “if we determine that a seller account has been used to engage in fraud or other illegal activity, remittances and payments may be withheld or forfeited.”

Thanks to work by people like Oliver Catlin, organizations like CSIP, and FDA actions against companies like BodyBuilding.com, Amazon is well aware that it operates a marketplace where illegal drugs are sold to American consumers. This report adds prescription antibiotics and muscle relaxants to the mix. The inaction of Amazon itself may be easier to explain than the inaction of federal regulators. As one of the first successful online businesses, Amazon had no qualms about exploiting a tax loophole that allowed it to sell goods for less than brick-and-mortar stores. It profits enormously from creating a platform for third-party sellers where anything that can be shipped can be sold, and Amazon will react after the fact by removing products or suspending sellers if there’s a serious problem. That strategy makes more sense for an auctioneer like eBay, where the seller handles the transaction, but Amazon’s sellers all have close business relationships with the company, which handles the customer relationship, processes all payments, and charges a percentage of sales that varies with the type of item. 

In some cases, like TR3N, Amazon handles fulfillment as well, meaning this legal prodrug of an illegal steroid is shipped direct from an Amazon warehouse. Recently USA Today reported on Dutch research showing that another Amazon item, Dexaprine XR, causes vomiting, chest pain, and elevated heart rates that could be life-threatening due to its amphetamine-like ingredients. The manufacturer, iForce, pled criminally guilty in 2011 to putting synthetic steroids in its products. You won’t find this product at GNC, but Amazon gladly ships this poison out of its warehouse direct to your doorstep. Just because a product has escaped regulatory scrutiny so far doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to sell it or ingest it.

The blunt way Amazon wields its market dominance is well-known to publishers, especially Hachette. The literary world is up in arms about the way Amazon conducts its book selling business. A New Yorker editor recently tweeted that he made an online purchase via Walmart to “support the underdog.” But a far more serious consequence of the company’s power may be the way it has pushed out local shops run by people who knew what they were selling. Amazon has replaced that quaint notion with a robot-powered emporium that exposes American consumers to a world of dangerous products. 

Ford Vox is a physician and journalist based at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta where he cares for people with brain and spinal cord injuries. He also writes for Bloomberg View and the Atlantic.

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