Doping drugs duty-free

Illegal medicine loot: The open postal boarders of the common European market.


Doping drugs duty-free

Von Josef Opfermann and Hajo Seppelt

The illegal importation of prescription only medication used to be complicated and the quality of the substances, sourced from East Asia, was dubious. Now German researchers are warning that recreational doping might become even more common because of liberal European market laws.

A trivial test has alarmed academic researchers: if you try to order prescription only medicine on the internet without needing to visit a doctor, you are met with an astonishing range of options. Some of these lie in Germany - strange as the mail order service of these items is strictly prohibited by law. First and foremost one precondition must be met: so called "long distance treatment" legally still requires a visit to a doctor before a prescription can be issued.

But when a group of researchers from Pirmasens, a branch of the Kaiserslautern Academy, headed by Niels Eckstein, a professor in pharmacology, set about their research project, it quickly discovered thatwhoever seeks access to prescription only medicine will find them immediately and without having to neither visit a doctor’s visit nor obtain a prescription. One no longer must be concerned about the quality of these drugs, previously sourced from East Asia. Europe’s common markets grant free access to the abuse of these medicines and thus doping products are available to just about anybody. For this group of experts this was a frustrating finding.                    

Only two cases of online scams

The process is simple. After a pseudo questionnaire from a self-appointed doctor during an online chat, one can order and then obtain whatever they desire. The scientists from Pirmasens ordered testosterone for muscle building, amfepramon for weight loss and prescription pain killers. "The process of ordering is handled in several European countries. There are many portals and websites where one can place such orders. They order, they are connected to a chat and a windows pops up with a doctor. But they cannot know whether it is a real doctor or not, no medical license in sight", Professor Eckstein told ARD doping editorial staff members. He published his findings in a German pharmaceutical journal, Deutsche Apotheker Zeitung, in August this year.

The scientists were amazed by a couple of observations. "Initially we expected the websites to be fraudulent. But in just two cases were we proven right. They turned out to be an exception. In the high majority of cases we received the substances by mail after a relatively short period of time." The quality of the products also surprised the German researchers, "we have tested them in our laboratory and astonishingly discovered, yes it is the original compound, quality assured prepared substances."

Customs discoveries

Laboratory research in Pirmasens: Quality assured medical products

Laboratory research in Pirmasens: Quality assured medical products

German politicians are appalled by the findings. "We have to expect that uncontrolled usage of these substances will lead to serious damage to health and at this point the general public will take part because they will have to cover the healthcare of the victims to these damages", Dagmar Freitag, Chairwoman of the German parliament’s sports committee, told ARD doping editorial staff, "further there is research of course on the long term damages that may arise, from severe illness to death."

The phenomenon itself is not exactly new but the channel of distribution, via the common European market, and the quality of the drugs is. For years experts from law enforcement, and medicine, have been shocked by the readiness shown by recreational athletes to purchase drugs for doping purposes. German customs have regularly been able to enlighten us on the steady growth of the illegal drugs market. In 2009, investigators opened 102 criminal proceedings for these crimes, in 2016 the number had already increased by twelve-fold.

Investigators regularly encounter the difficulty of reliably controlling this enormous flow of mail order drugs. "99.9 per cent of all doping substances are consumed at the amateur sports level", says Perikles Simon, a professor of sports medicine from Mainz.

Tax-free Malta

Even the legal market for such medicines in Germany is a tremendously lucrative. Last year doctors prescribed 903 million packages of medicine worth 50 billion euros. Mail order service has boomed in this sector too: 55 percent of German internet users, 31 million people, have purchased medicine online in 2016. A comparison of the different national VATs suggests that even these legal mail order services might be attractive because of their prices: whilst Denmark demands 25 percent VAT on medicine and Germany 19, Spain only has 4 and Luxemburg 3 percent, while in Malta there is no VAT.

Pharmacologist Eckstein from Pirmasens: "A normal doctor would refrain from prescribing the drug."

Pharmacologist Eckstein from Pirmasens: "A normal doctor would refrain from prescribing the drug."

The scientists from Primasens though recognised that this has no effect on the customers in the illegal market. They observed two countries that were illegally exporting these prescription medicines: Denmark and Great Britain. Thus they found that customers were willing to pay a surcharge if it meant they did not need a prescription. The project was only made possible after special permission from federal state authorities because the whole process is practically illegal. 

“Whoever acts this way, actsunscrupulously”

The bogus doctors discussed potential health risks little during the online chats. "We stated we had high blood pressure as a health condition, but nevertheless we received a delivery of drugs with explicit blood pressure boosting effects", pharmacologist Eckstein said, "in this case a normal doctor would note this as a danger, he would refrain from prescribing the drug."

The politician Freitag, from the Social Democrats, is also furious about the actions of these suppliers. "Whoever acts this way, acts unscrupulously. We are talking about licenced medicine that is used to treat both the ill and critically ill. And whoever is ill, is issued a prescription. Whoever is not ill, may try the illegal routes, possibly not even reflecting on the damage they could do to their own health", she tells ARD doping editorial staff, "the criteria is clear, the medicine has to be licenced in Germany, the prescription has to be presented on paper and, crucially, the medicine has to be supplied in Germanpackaging with an instruction leaflet in the German language. If that is not the case, the supplier renders himself liable to prosecution."

Stand: 12.09.2018, 16:00