Canadian Internet Pharmacy Founder Gets 4 Years in Counterfeit Drugs Case

Canadian online pharmacy pioneer, Andrew Strempler, was sentenced January 9th, 2013 to 4 years after he pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Initially, Strempler faced 4 charges relating to the case with each carrying a possible sentence of 20 years.

Strempler’s current legal woes stem from the FDA investigation of his Internet pharmacy business Mediplan Health Consulting Inc, also known as RX-North. According to the Wall Street Journal, FDA investigations of Strempler’s business discovered that 90% of the drugs they had seized from a Mediplan shipment were counterfeit. The shipment contained fake versions of Arimidex, a breast cancer treatment, and Lipitor, the cholesterol drug.

Drugs

Drugs
by Curtis Gregory Perry via Flickr.

Canadian online pharmacy pioneer, Andrew Strempler, was sentenced January 9th, 2013 to 4 years after he pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Initially, Strempler faced 4 charges relating to the case and was facing a possible sentence of 20 years.

Strempler’s current legal woes stem from the FDA investigation of his Internet pharmacy business Mediplan Health Consulting Inc, also known as RX-North. According to the Wall Street Journal, FDA investigations of Strempler’s business discovered that 90% of the drugs they had seized from a Mediplan shipment were counterfeit. The shipment contained fake versions of Arimidex, a breast cancer treatment, and Lipitor, the cholesterol drug.

Strempler was arrested in Miami in June 2012, during a layover en route to Canada. He had been living in Panama with his wife and children, but Panamanian authorities deported him after they were alerted by Interpol to the outstanding U.S. warrant in his name, reported the Wall Street Journal.

A Department of Justice press release, dated January 9th, 2013 states that:
“Strempler and his co-conspirators unlawfully enriched themselves by selling prescription drugs to individuals in the United States, falsely representing that RxNorth was selling safe prescription drugs in compliance with regulations in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Strempler obtained the prescription drugs from various other source countries without properly ensuring the safety or authenticity of the drugs. In fact, some of the drugs sold by Strempler included counterfeit drugs.

“Strempler caused prescription drugs from foreign countries to be shipped to a facility that Strempler operated in the Bahamas. Prescription orders made through RxNorth were then filled at the Bahamas facility, with labels on the vials and drug cartons stating they had been filled by RxNorth in Canada. Strempler then used indirect routes involving multiple countries to ship packages with prescription drugs from the Bahamas to individuals in the United States. Shipments mailed from the Bahamas, containing packages addressed to individuals in the Southern District of Florida, included counterfeit prescription drugs.”

Andrew Strempler started his Internet drug sales in 2001 by selling nicotine gum on E-Bay, according to the Winnipeg Free Press report published at the time of his sentencing. He started RXNorth/Mediplan shortly thereafter, selling purportedly Canadian prescription drugs to customers in the United States, states the Free Press report.

In 2006, the FDA warned consumers not to purchase drugs from RXNorth/Mediplan saying, “Preliminary laboratory results to date have found counterfeits of the following drug products from these websites: Lipitor, Diovan, Actonel, Nexium, Hyzaar, Ezetrol (known as Zetia in the United States), Crestor, Celebrex, Arimidex, and Propecia. All of these medications require a prescription from a licensed health care provider to be legally dispensed.”

Once the FDA warning was issued, Strempler sold RXNorth/Mediplan to Canadian online pharmacy rival, Canada Drugs.com, reported The CBC news at the time of Strempler’s arrest. Canada Drugs has itself been the target of an FDA investigations into the sale of counterfeit  cancer drugs to US doctors last year, according to the Wall Street Journal, and was ordered to stop selling “Unnaproved and misbranded drugs” by the FDA in September, 2012.

In January 2010, the
Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association reported on their decision to ban Andrew Strempler from their organization. The MPhA claimed that Strempler was “guilty of unskilled practice and/or professional misconduct”. The MPhA found that Strempler sold drugs that were not made in or approved for sale in Canada labeled Health Canada. This deception is what cost Strempler his pharmacy license. He was also ordered to pay $7,500 in Canadian currency to the MPhA and “not to apply for registration as a pharmacist in Manitoba without first pleading guilty to the charges in the Notice of Hearing.”

Strempler was not cowed by losing his pharmacy license, however. According to a Winnipeg Free Press report from 2010, Strempler set up a new online pharmacy operation called PharmacyCheck, immediately following the 2006 FDA warning that was sent to RXNorth/Mediplan. The new site operated out of Curacao, an island nation off the coast of Venezuela, and well away from US or Canadian jurisdiction.

The Free Press spoke to the registrar of the MPhA, Ronald Guse, who expressed dismay at the news that Strempler had set up a new Internet pharmacy. He also voiced frustration at his agency’s “limited capacity to investigate complaints against online businesses.” As Guse put it, “This isn’t like ordering a book or a record — you’re talking about drugs people need to maintain or sustain their life,”

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart F. Delery of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, commented that, “Today’s sentencing should send a clear message to anyone who operates an online pharmacy that sidesteps the FDA protections and defrauds consumers. Consumers need to be aware that prescription drugs purchased online may be counterfeit, substandard, or unsafe.”

Wifredo A. Ferrer, I.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida issued both a warning and a commitment to protecting consumers on the occasion of Strempler’s sentencing: “Counterfeit prescription drugs sold through the internet pose a serious health hazard to consumers in the United States. These drugs can be adulterated, ineffective and unsafe. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to assisting the FDA enforce regulations to protect American consumers from these unsafe drugs.”

Strempler’s still faces a restitution hearing slated for February 26, 2013, announced the Department of Justice.

By S. Imber