The rise of illegal online pharmacies in Singapore

More than 100,000 websites or online market places were shut down in the past year in Interpol's Operation Pangea XIV.
More than 100,000 websites or online market places were shut down in the past year in Interpol's Operation Pangea XIV.PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The unauthorised sale online of prescription medicine has increased markedly, said Interpol.

Mr Rory Corcoran, assistant director for illicit markets at Interpol, told The Sunday Times: "During the last three years, our operations each saw law enforcement shut down between 3,000 and 6,000 websites.

"In the past year (2020) alone, more than 100,000 websites or online market places were shut down in Operation Pangea XIV."

Interpol launched the operation in 2008 to disrupt the online sale of counterfeit and illicit health products, while alerting consumers to the risks involved in buying medicine from unregulated websites.

Mr Corcoran attributed the increase of online activity to the Covid-19 pandemic but also to the increased attention to online sales by law enforcement authorities.

ST found that prescription drugs including nitrazepam, dormicum and tramadol are being peddled on messaging platform Telegram, sometimes alongside listings for hard drugs.

Sellers send them through the mail system by declaring them as mobile phone parts, cosmetics, plastic products, dietary vitamins and toys.

Singapore's Health Sciences Authority (HSA) said medicine with addictive potential (MAPs) such as codeine in cough medicine and medicine to treat insomnia are regulated here.

It works closely with other agencies to screen and stop illegal shipments of medicine entering Singapore, including those sent through parcel post.

A spokesman for HSA said: "Taking MAPs for inappropriate non-medical uses or without medical supervision can be dangerous, as they can cause serious side effects, particularly when consumed in higher than usual doses.

"These side effects can include drowsiness, confusion, respiratory depression, hallucinations, as well as development of physical and psychological dependence."

HSA said that from 2017 to 2020, a yearly average of 187 litres of codeine syrup, 62,000 codeine tablets and 140,000 sleeping pills intended for illegal sale and supply were seized.

In that period, 47 people were prosecuted for selling or importing MAPs illegally.

The Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI) told ST that counterfeit medicine, prescription or otherwise, may be produced in any country "where drug regulation may be weak... and is just too big, with very porous borders".

The organisation, which is based in the United States, partners Interpol in Ops Pangea XIV to fight pharmaceutical crime.

In the first seven months of 2021, PSI said it received 842 notices on the Internet, 3,068 notices on social media and 11,015 notices on marketplaces where the medicines were being sold.

These are higher figures than those seen in 2019 and 2020.

Mr Ramesh Raj Kishore, PSI regional director for Asia Pacific, said: "Every year, PSI, together with its members, will carry out disruption operation. These findings are also shared with law enforcement agencies for their further considerations."

But the criminals often try to cover their tracks online by using VPNs and the Dark Web, said Mr Corcoran.

"This can make investigation and prosecution challenging, with considerable time required to successfully identify entire production and distribution networks and legally prosecute cases," he added.