It should be stated upfront that this post is in no way advocating the illegal internet drug trade nor is it an advertisement for the websites that facilitate this.
In the 2006 movie Candy, Heath Ledger’s character provides an anecdote for the life of a drug addict: “They say for every ten years you've been a junkie, you'll have spent seven of them waiting. On the one hand it was nice having all that time to think. On the other, anxiety was a full time job”. Fast forward six years and it seems drug dealers and buyers have no reason to be anxious anymore.
Last year reports started to emerge of an underground website that facilitates the sale of illegal drugs. The reveal of Silk Road brought the Internet drug trade to light. Illegitimate online pharmacies are popping up faster than singles-in-your-area ads making the purchase of illegal substances easier than ever before.
In a telephonic interview, information security specialist Bradley Cowie explains how easy it is for Internet end users to access underground websites like Silk Road: Accessing underground websites by simonearmer
Back in 2001, the World Health Organisation (WHO) held a workshop in Denmark to review the then-current legislation and procedure that governed the online distribution of drug information and the unlawful sale of medical products.
South Africa was present at the workshop and was invited to give a presentation on the country’s perspective on medicine regulation. More than a decade later, South Africa has no visible policy on the control of Internet pharmacies or the sale of illegal drugs online.
In fact, it would appear that South Africa is not involved in the online drug trade at all. The last reported case relating to the sale of illegal drugs online was eight years ago and information on the topic is hard to come by. Is it really possible that South Africa has managed to side step this growing Internet phenomenon?
Online pharmacy industry
Online pharmacies operate over the Internet and send orders to customers via home delivery or through the mail. Legitimate Internet pharmacies, like Dis-Chem, are operated by a licensed pharmacy and conform to government legislation. Illegal Internet pharmacies are unlicensed or have false credentials, may ship expired or counterfeit medications and do not conform to government regulations.
Considering that only 13% of the country is using the Internet, the online pharmacy industry in South Africa caters only to a small segment of the population. Furthermore, because the South African web is much smaller than the international web, illegal online pharmacies may not be able to fly so neatly under the radar.
There is nothing stopping South Africans ordering from international websites, however, either to purchase prescription medication without a prescription or to buy illegal drugs. For most transactions all one needs is Internet access, a credit card and a mailing address.
Medications are subject to inspection by Port Health officials at post offices and airports. Recent statistics are not available but in 2001 it was reported that only 5% of parcels are verified. Distributors are also known to falsify package information, mislabeling goods to look like something else.
Purchasing drugs from international websites might not necessarily be cost worthy for a South African but hosting a website that sells pharmaceutics is. A bottle of herbal slimming tablets, for example, can cost up to $39 (R315) from an American online pharmacy. If an American were to shop off a South African website, however, an equivalent product would cost them roughly $8 (R65). South African online pharmacies, like Springbok, have been successful in creating an international client base.
Online pharmacies may be a relatively small industry in South Africa but the country is active in the manufacturing and distribution of illegal drugs, which may be sold on international websites.
The 2011 World Drug Report showed that South Africa is an exporter, transit country and end user of illegal drugs. The country, a known producer of cannabis and methamphetamines, is identified as a major player in the international drug trafficking arena. In 2009 South Africa produced 657 metric tons of herb cannabis.
The country is also involved in the distribution of counterfeit prescription medication. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reported that the company has seen counterfeit drugs in South Africa, often found to contain harmful levels of pesticide, rat poison, paint and ink.
What the law says
This legislation prohibits the import and export of drugs without the required license or authorisation from the South African Pharmacy Council. It also only permits a licensed pharmacist to sell and dispense pharmaceutics. In terms of online sales, current legislation exercises control only over the physical movement of products.
The Council does however outline Good Pharmacy Practice for Internet websites that sell pharmaceutics. These website are required to be operated by a pharmacy licensed by the Department of Health and recorded with the Council. They must operate in compliance with relevant legislation and cannot operate independently of a pharmacy.
Although information and statistics are scarce, it seems that to some extent South Africa is indeed involved in the online drug trade. The question is: how comfortable is South Africa with being an accessory to this international black market?