Last month, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) held a conference in Vienna to discuss the the production, distribution and trafficking of fake drugs by organized crime networks.  The conference, which was held February 14-15, gathered an international group of experts from governments, law enforcement agencies, NGOs and the private sector to share information about the scale of the problem, which has significant impact worldwide. UNODC has found that in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America as much as 30 percent of available drugs are fraudulent, and that the trafficking of unsafe or ineffective medicine is “a multi-billion dollar activity.”

Last month, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) held a conference in Vienna to discuss the production, distribution and trafficking of fake drugs by organized crime networks.  The conference, which was held February 14-15, gathered an international group of experts from governments, law enforcement agencies, NGOs and the private sector to share information about the scale of the problem, which has significant impact worldwide. UNODC has found that in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America as much as 30 percent of available drugs are fraudulent, and that the trafficking of unsafe or ineffective medicine is “a multi-billion dollar activity.”

In his opening remarks, Yury Fedotov, UNODC’s Executive Director, said that fraudulent drugs have come to the organization’s attention because they are “one of the very newest forms of global criminal challenges.” He reminded his colleagues that “what really matters is that fraudulent medicines are a severe public health risk. They deserve our full attention. Where medicine is designed to bring treatment and relief, fraudulent medicines deliver only suffering, misery and even death.”

UNODC’s plans to fight the counterfeit drug trade through collaborative efforts coordinated by the United Nations — the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, which “provides for the exchange of information, the application of investigative powers, and information sharing”; the Global Container Control Programme, which was founded to assist in the detection of illegal narcotics, but has been applied to the detection of fraudulent drugs; and UNODC’s Global Programme on Money Laundering, which helps law enforcement agencies locate and seize the assets of criminals who manufacture and sell these medicines.

The US Department of Justice's Senior Litigation Counsel for the Consumer Protection Branch (CPB), Linda Marks, who spoke at The Partnership for Safe Medicine’s Interchange 2012 last September, delivered a presentation about CPB’s challenges handling the problem of counterfeit drugs in the United States.  According to Marks’ presentation, US Customs and Border Protection and the FDA have been dealing with large quantities of prescription drugs purporting to be from Canada and other countries.  She explained that the internet has created a situation in which “anyone with a computer can now become a drug wholesaler” and physicians and patients are ordering prescriptions directly from unlicensed dealers offering drugs at discounted prices.  These drugs may be counterfeit, unapproved, mishandled or misbranded.

Marks noted that fraudulent medicine dealers may be prosecuted for counterfeiting, misbranding or adulterating drugs; for trademark infringement; for mail or wire fraud, conspiracy to commit other offenses, and for money laundering. In order to find and prosecute counterfeiters, however, CPB must trace money that is funneled through a maze of shell companies and intermediaries, trace packages with false names, addresses and customs declarations, find stock that has been re-packaged by wholesalers, and keep track of businesses which may continually rename and rebrand themselves to avoid detection.  All of this is further complicated by the international nature of the counterfeit drug trade, in which different jurisdictions must share information, cooperate, and rely on similar laws to prosecute.  

The conference agenda and presentations, as well as UNODC’s Resolution 20/6, “Countering fraudulent medicines, in particular their trafficking” may be found at the conference website.

By S. Imber