The teenagers killed by fake prescription drugs

ITV News' Sam Holder has this special report as more than a dozen fake pharmacy sites remain online and pose a deadly threat

The fake pill Will Helstrip took was so lethal, he died while still clutching a pack of sweets. 

Will, who was 18 and suffered from depression and anxiety as a result of years of bullying about his cleft lip, began self-medicating after he was unable to get the right support from doctors. 

Despite Will’s struggles, he had recently landed his dream job coding and moved into his own flat. One evening he took what he thought was Valium to help him sleep, which he had ordered online.  

What Will didn’t know was that the pill which arrived in the Jiffy bag to his home in Yorkshire was actually Etonitazene - a powerful synthetic opioid twenty times stronger than fentanyl. 

'Ultimately what happened was, the drugs that he thought he was buying were laced with a lethal drug, something ten to twenty times more lethal than fentanyl.'

“It was a drug that Will certainly wouldn't have heard of and certainly would never have bought if he knew what it was,” says Will’s dad Steve, who found his son’s body. 

His mum Ruth is angry that nobody has been brought to justice for her son’s death in May 2022. 

“I don't understand how they're allowed to operate, and they're allowed to get away with this,” she said.

“The problem is that these websites are very good at packaging the pills so that they do look like anything else you would get from the doctor." 

ITV News has been investigating fake online pharmacies for the past year.  

The websites, which are easily found online, are designed to look as legitimate as possible, with dozens of reviews and full of medical jargon to put the buyer at ease.

Some of the sites, which are run by organised criminal gangs, are making millions of pounds a year.  

They offer to sell prescription drugs without a prescription, which is illegal. Often the pills contain different - more dangerous drugs - than advertised. 

Cerys Clark, 19, died after being given a fake Xanax by a friend in Manchester, which actually contained another benzodiazepine, called Fluprazolam.

The friend himself died from taking fake pills a few months later. 

“She was absolutely amazing. The world’s better for her having been in it, but it’s sad that she’s not here anymore,” said Cerys’ mum, Lyndsey.

“Why is nobody doing anything about this? She’s just fallen off the planet, with no accountability for anyone or anything.”

'They didn't do anything to further this information onto anybody where they looked at where these drugs had originated from.'

Although selling fake pills and prescription drugs without a prescription is a criminal offence, it isn’t the police who are responsible for investigating. Rather, it is the medicines regulator, the MHRA, which has the powers necessary to take down the sites and prosecute the sellers. 

ITV News reported multiple websites to the MHRA, but a year on more than a dozen were still up and running. 

One whistleblower, who was formerly a senior manager, has accused the MHRA of “failing to protect public health” due to a lack of action over these websites. 

The whistleblower, who wanted his identity hidden, says that teams within the MHRA identified “people at the top” of the criminal gangs running these sites, but a decision was made not to prosecute them because of the costs involved. Some of these gangs were in possession of millions of pills. 

“You need to appreciate that surveillance is expensive” he said, “and then afterwards the cost of bringing the prosecution without a doubt has a decision factor around it with senior management.”

A whistleblower told ITV News: 'Without a doubt, the websites are run by organised criminals. They're extremely dangerous.'

“There have been a number of cases where we identified people at the top but the agency would prefer to arrest the people at the bottom… they very rarely went after the top echelon that would actually close down the organised crime group."

In response, the MHRA said that last year they had “removed 7 million potentially lethal doses of medicines from circulation”. 

The agency also said they had “successfully disrupted 700 websites illegally selling medicines” since April, although the spokesperson didn’t clarify how many of those websites were specifically so-called ‘fake pharmacies’ selling prescription and fake drugs.

In a statement Andy Morling, MHRA Deputy Director of Criminal Enforcement said: "We target all levels within these organised criminal gangs, and as their tactics evolve, so do our methods to identify, disrupt and dismantle them.

“Patient safety is our top priority, and we will continue working with our law enforcement partners in the police service and Border Force to prevent this offending where we can, to disrupt it where we can’t, and to bring offenders to justice where we should."

The total number could include websites selling unlicensed slimming pills or erectile dysfunction tablets. 

ITV News has found that many of the fake pharmacy websites are registered in foreign countries in order to hide the seller’s true identity and make it more difficult for authorities to shut down. 

ITV News reported multiple websites to the MHRA, but a year on more than a dozen were still up and running.  Credit: ITV News

The pills are ordered in bulk from often from legitimate factories in Asia, especially India and Pakistan.

The criminal gangs know that customs will intercept some of the shipments, but because they are buying the pills so cheaply, they can make an enormous profit even if only a small percentage make it across the border.

Once inside the UK, they are sent out by post to customers up and down the country - many appear to be sent from the Midlands in particular.  

The families of both Will Helstrip and Cerys Clark are urging the authorities to make shutting down fake pharmacies and prosecuting those running them a priority.

Both families claim that there has been no investigation into where the pills came from, and which fake online pharmacies have been linked to their children’s deaths.  

“The websites need to be taken down, the regulations need to be tighter and the people distributing it need to face tougher sentences," says Lyndsey Clark. 

“Cerys wasn’t a crime number, she was my daughter, she deserves a proper investigation and I don’t believe they are taking this seriously."

When asked about these websites by ITV News, the Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting called it "appalling".

"We'd got to come down like a ton of bricks on these fake pharmacies to make sure that the public aren't taken advantage of and put at risk," he added.

Health Minister Maria Caulfield told ITV News: "We do take action where we find it and the MHRA who is the regulator for medicines is constantly looking at it... But a lot of these websites are international and it's not always in our gift to be able to close them down. It's a worldwide problem."

"When we are able to close them down, they often will spring up in other countries," she added.

*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

  • Release offers free and confidential advice about drugs and the law on its helpline on 020 7324 2989 or email: ask@release.org.uk

  • 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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