ITV News' Sam Holder heard from Lily, a mother who turned to the websites in question after becoming addicted to sleeping pills
An ITV News investigation has found dozens of illegal websites posing as pharmacies and selling powerful prescription drugs in the UK.
The pills, which treat conditions including chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia are addictive and most are banned as either Class A or Class C drugs without a doctor’s prescription.
They include drugs commonly sold under the brand names of Xanax, Valium and Ambien.
Hundreds of pills can be ordered at a time, with discounts offered for bulk-buying and special promotions sent out by email.
The government regulator of medicines is warning that the drugs sold on these sites “can seriously damage your health”.
Analysis carried out for ITV News on a random selection of pills from the sites found that the majority were not what they claimed to be.
Testing took place at the WEDINOS lab run by Public Health Wales, which is able to identify the chemical makeup of drugs. Three out of five pills submitted were mislabelled.
“The substances that we found within those products are more potent than the substances they replaced, so the concern is around individuals knowing how much they’re consuming at any one time,” says Dean Acreman, who is Project Manager at WEDINOS.
Buying from these sites is essentially a game of roulette - and the consequences can be dire
“The onset of effects may be different, so customers may re-dose [if they don’t feel anything within the expected timeframe] which increases the risk of adverse effects”
One packet of tablets sold as sleeping pills was actually determined to be from a completely different family of drugs, Benzodiazepines, which are addictive and have completely different effects and dosage.
The websites are designed to look as legitimate as possible in order to reassure customers, but offer potentially dangerous quantities of strong medication with no questions asked. Anybody of any age can easily access the sites by conducting a simple internet search.
They promise discrete and reliable delivery without the need for a doctor's note. One website explicitly states that “all orders come complete without an overpriced prescription”.
“We do not ask you a million questions… simply select your desired quantity and pay, then your parcel will arrive within 24hrs”.
All of the samples from the websites we investigated arrived in plain brown envelopes and contained no instructions at all, as well as no warnings about the risk of overdose or potentially dangerous interactions with other drugs or medical conditions.
Lily (not her real name), suffered with a long-term addiction to sleeping pills. After her doctor refused to prescribe her more drugs, she turned to fake online pharmacies.
“I just wiped any sense of risk out of my mind, I was just doing what I needed to do to function. I was really surprised you could find them that easily and buy them in bulk because the GP made such a fuss about them being controlled drugs," she said.
Experts warn our findings show how these illicit websites are feeding prescription drug dependencies in the UK.
'The need for that drug was just so great... I just wiped any sense of risk from my mind'
Jenna Veerapen, operations manager at one of the country’s biggest private rehabilitation clinics - UK Addiction Treatment Centres (UKAT) - said: “We're seeing a rise in the number of people coming into treatment with addiction to prescription drugs, which they're accessing online because they can't get continued prescriptions or GPS have stopped prescriptions.”
“The online websites have made it really easy. They look like they're your friend, but actually they're pulling you into a false world and giving you something that you have no idea what you're taking. It's really, really dangerous- we don't know what's in them, we don't know what chemicals it's mixed with, we don't know where it's coming from.”
Some of the websites even list phone numbers that customers can call for advice, in order to make them appear genuine. When we rang one of the numbers, we were told that “all of our products come from the UK and all of them are UK and FDA approved”.
When asked if the pills were "exactly the same as would be offered on the NHS", the person on the end of the line responded “absolutely”. Our findings show that is categorically not the case.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is responsible for investigating pharmacies and prescription drugs being sold in the UK.
Alison Cave, MHRA Chief Officer for Safety and Surveillance, said: “We take all reports of illegal websites seriously. All the sites highlighted to us by ITV are being reviewed and we will take appropriate action once investigations are complete."
“There are large numbers of websites that are not online pharmacies, they are illegally operating, exploitative criminal websites."
“We would encourage the public to seek advice from our #fakemeds website and, if they are still unsure whether a website is legal, to avoid purchasing from it and report any suspicious offers, or side effects experienced from taking these medicines, to our Yellow Card scheme - the UK’s system for recording adverse incidents with medicines and medical devices.”
The MHRA has confirmed that it is now investigating the websites identified by ITV News.
What can be done about these fake pharmacies?
Feryal Clark MP, Shadow Minister for Primary Care and Patient Safety, said: "It is deeply disturbing that powerful prescription drugs are becoming freely available online.
"It shouldn't have taken months for this to have come to light and journalists shouldn't have had to bring it to the Secretary of State's attention...the zombie government kicked the Online Safety Bill into the long grass, meaning the wild west online continues.
"This illegal practice is putting patient safety at risk. We need an official investigation urgently."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Buying medicines online from illegitimate sources can seriously damage your health.
"We strongly recommend people only use registered pharmacies, which apply the same high standards for the online supply of medicines as they do in store.”
*ITV News has decided not to name the websites selling the mislabelled drugs in order to avoid directing members of the public towards them.
If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this article, the following charities offer support:
Action of Addiction works across all areas of treatment, research, family support and professional education - 0300 330 0659
Frank offers confidential advice and information about drugs, their effects and the law - 0300 123 6600
Narcotics Anonymous offers support for anyone who wants to stop using drugs - 0300 999 1212
We Are With You supports people with drug, alcohol or mental health problems, and their friends and family
The UK Addiction Treatment Group offers free online information and guidance for prescription drug addiction as well as a 24/7 confidential helpline on 0808 274 8029.
You can also discuss addiction issues with your GP
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