Patrick J. Leahy

Testimony before the U.S. Senate
Opening Statement of Hon. Patrick J. Leahy,
U.S. Senator from Vermont

U.S. Senate Committee Committee on the Judiciary
May 16, 2007

Good morning. Today the Committee will be holding an important hearing on the growing problem of rogue online pharmacies that illegally traffic in highly addictive painkillers and other controlled substances. You know, in many ways, the Internet has made our lives better. I have been one of its biggest proponents for those reasons. It removes the historic constraints from geography; it provides access to information and knowledge that might otherwise remain unavailable, especially to people like myself who live in rural areas. Distance learning, access to medical knowledge at the finest hospitals, and increased commercial competition—these are all aspects of the Internet that are important. Vermont businesses sell Vermont products throughout the Nation and around the world through the Internet. At the same time, the Internet has enabled Vermonters, and others, better access to convenient and more affordable medicine, which should be stressed.

But the online sale of pharmaceuticals presents a more complicated and problematic aspect. Rogue online pharmacies increasingly have become a source for the illegal supply of controlled substances. Dangerous and addictive prescription drugs are too often only a click away without the proper constraints of local doctors and pharmacists.

Controlled drugs, such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives, can be too easily bought illegally over the Internet. Anyone—including children—can readily obtain dangerous controlled substances from online pharmacies. All they need is access to a computer and a credit card. The check and security provided by our local pharmacists in local pharmacies—those who have served Americans for generations and helped us get well and keep us well—is not always replicated online.

The 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that almost 6 million people currently misuse prescription drugs and, of them, more than two-thirds 4.4 million people—abuse pain relievers such as OxyContin. Some celebrities have been involved in high-profile cases, but I am more concerned about the fact that people in every state and increasingly from every age group and demographics are affected. When abused, these drugs have enormous potential to cause harm and illness and addiction, and as we are going to hear this morning from one of our witnesses, tragically even death.

American teenagers are always particularly vulnerable to Internet drug trafficking. Among young people, prescription drugs have become the second most abused illegal drug. In fact, if you exclude marijuana, more adults and teens report abusing prescription drugs than all the other illicit drugs combined. Too many American teenagers mistakenly believe that abusing addictive narcotics is a safe way to get ‘‘high.’’

As we learned just last week, some drug companies have themselves contributed to that dangerous impression by giving consumers misleading information about the addictive qualities of these drugs. Purdue Pharmacies, the maker of the powerful painkiller OxyContin, and three of its corporate executives pled guilty to intentionally misleading the public when it promoted OxyContin as less addictive than narcotics. It is a sad day when pharmaceutical companies act like tobacco companies and mislead the public rather than alerting the public to the risks associated with the use of its products.

We have legislation referred to this Committee that would create potent new tools for law enforcement to prosecute those who illegally sell drugs online and allow State authorities to shut down online pharmacies even before they get started. And I will work with the Senators from California and Alabama and others on these matters.

As the longtime Co-Chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, I will ask the Caucus to consider the issue of the growing danger that online pharmacies pose to youth. Internet drug trafficking has presented another challenge for law enforcement. If drug dealers came into our neighborhoods selling these kinds of drugs, Americans would be up in arms.

So I thank our distinguished panel of witnesses for appearing today, and I also especially want to thank Senator Specter for his work in connection with this hearing.

[The prepared statement of Senator Leahy appears as a submission for the record.]

Senator Specter?