Charged with cracking down on the diversion of prescription drugs, the DEA has pursed doctors, pharmacists, pharmacy chains, and wholesale drug suppliers. It has now turned a baleful eye on shipping companies as well, with differing results -- at least so far.
The Orlando Sentinel
reported Tuesday that both UPS and FedEx had admitted in corporate filings that they were the targets of DEA probes into packages of pills shipped from online pharmacies. Prescriptions filled by online pharmacies are illegal if there is not a real doctor-patient relationship, and the DEA maintains that prescriptions written by "cyber doctors" relying on online questionnaires are not legal.
FedEx has strongly pushed back against the DEA probe, but UPS has now buckled under the pressure. In a Friday statement
, the DEA announced that UPS had agreed to forfeit $40 million it had been paid for shipments by online pharmacies and to enter into a "compliance program" to ensure online pharmacies can't use its services. The deal was part of a non-prosecution agreement the shipper signed with federal prosecutors in Northern California.
DEA accused UPS of knowingly shipping the illegally-prescribed drugs between 2003 and 2010 because "it was on notice, through some employees" that such activities were occurring. DEA also accused UPS of failing to do anything about it.
"DEA is aggressively targeting the diversion of controlled substances, as well as those who facilitate their unlawful distribution," said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart. "This investigation is significant and DEA applauds UPS for working to strengthen and enhance its practices in order to prevent future drug diversion."
FedEx may prove a tougher nut to crack. Officials there called the federal probe "absurd and disturbing" and said it threatened customer privacy. They also accused the DEA of failing to cooperate with them in efforts to resolve the problem.
"We are a transportation company -- we are not law enforcement, we are not doctors and we are not pharmacists," FedEx spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement. "We have no interest in violating the privacy of our customers by opening and inspecting their packages in an attempt to determine the legality of the contents. We stand ready and willing to support and assist law enforcement. We cannot, however, do their jobs for them."
FedEx complained that rather than working with the shipping industry to come up with solutions, the Justice Department appeared focused on finding ways to prosecute shippers.
"This is unwarranted by law and a dangerous distraction at a time when the purported illegal activity by these pharmacies continues," Fitzgerald said.
FedEx has been a major campaign contributor to US Rep. John Mica (R-FL), whom the Sentinel reported had sent a letter to Leonhart and Attorney General Eric Holder asking them to recognize "the difficulty and unfairness of requiring those carriers to assume responsibility for the legality and validity of the contents of the millions of sealed packages that they pick up and deliver ever day."
Mica told the Sentinel that while he is "concerned about prescription drugs," it was inefficient to try to turn shipping companies into drug policy enforcers. "You can't stop commerce; you can't open every package," Mica said. "I'm only asking them for a reasonable approach."
But it doesn't appear that DEA and the Justice Department see things the same way as Rep. Mica does.