US scheme aims to block illegal online opioid sales

The US federal government has set up a pilot scheme to try to reduce the availability of opioid painkillers online, amid an epidemic of overdose-related deaths.

The FDA and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) are behind the initiative, which is targeting the operators of websites used to sell unapproved and often counterfeit opioids directly to the public.

Illicit opioid sales often involve falsified medicines that are made up to look like drugs such as oxycodone, but in fact are made using ultra-powerful drugs like fentanyl and isotonitazene that dramatically increase the risk of an overdose.

More than 67,300 Americans died from drug-involved overdose in 2018, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Under the 120-day ‘trusted notifier’ pilot, the FDA will notify participating internet registries – Neustar, Verisign and Public Interest Registry – when the agency sends a warning letter to a website operator and the website operator does not respond adequately within a set timeframe.

The registries will then review the FDA’s notifications and assess whether to take further voluntary action. Upon receiving notice from the FDA, a registry may then voluntarily lock the domain, delete the domain, or place the domain on hold, as appropriate.

NTIA oversees telecommunications and information policy issues and is part of the US Department of Commerce.

At the end of the pilot program, NTIA, FDA, and the domain name registries will analyse the program’s effectiveness and its potential as a long-term solution to combatting the illegal sale of unapproved opioids online.

One key distribution channel that won’t be tackled in the pilot is the dark web, which while still a minor part of the overall trade in illicit opioids has seen an uptick in use over the last few years despite enforcement actions against sites like xDedic, AlphaBay, Hansa and Silk Roads 1 and 2.

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