STEP #1: Raise Penalties For Drug Crimes To Reflect The Widespread Harm They Can Inflict

Last Thursday a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Representatives jointly introduced a bicameral bill that would significantly increase the criminal penalties for drug counterfeiting to as much as 20 years in prison, as reported by Phil Taylor in SecuringPharma (see the article for the details).  The house bill is called H. R. 3468, The Counterfeit Drug Penalty Enhancement Act.  The group of legislators include U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representatives Patrick Meehan (R-PA) and Linda Sánchez (D-CA).  Not surprisingly the responses from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and Pfizer were swift and supportive.

Raising the penalties for counterfeiting drugs to the point where they adequately reflect the widespread harm they can cause the public is a very good thing.  It should have the effect of making people think twice about selling counterfeit drugs to Americans through the internet or attempting to introduce them into the legitimate supply chain (brick-and-mortar and legitimate internet pharmacies).  It may even cause more people in the legitimate supply chain to think twice about buying drugs that have prices that seem too good to be true from sources that they aren’t quite sure about, so that they don’t inadvertently get caught up in a scheme to introduce counterfeits into the supply chain and risk prison or a large fine.  Maybe.


Yes, significantly higher penalties for counterfeiting drugs are a good thing, but can’t we make the same argument to also justify higher penalties for drug theft from distribution centers and trucks, and robbery of pharmacies?  These crimes are also on the rise and they also result in a high potential for widespread harm to the public when these drugs are reintroduced into the legitimate supply chain.  These crimes can result in something that is just as bad as the harm that can come from counterfeiting.

Take, for instance, the recent successful cargo theft of a truck carrying 14 pallets-worth of Oxycodone tablets from Actavis last month as reported by SecuringPharma.  The heist also netted the thieves 16 pallets of other drugs too, but I want to focus on the Oxycodone.  Nobody is going to find these bottles showing back up in the legitimate supply chain.  Oxycodone is the generic name for the opiate-based prescription pain medication that most people know better by its brand name “OxyContin” used by the brand owner.

Oxycodone abuse in the U.S. has been rising steadily for at least the last dozen years.  It results in a particularly insidious form of addiction.  One that quickly becomes a major social problem in the small and large communities where it takes hold.  Here is a quote that says it all from U.S. Attorney Joseph Famularo during a February 2001 news conference as quoted in the March 13, 2011 article “OxyContin abuse spreads from Appalachia across U.S.” by Bill Estep, Dori Hjalmarson and Halimah Abdullah of McClatchy Newspapers:

You could leave a bag of cocaine on the street and no one would touch it, but leave one OxyContin in the back of an armored car and they’ll blow it up to get at it.”

Along with the rise in Oxycodone abuse has been a rise in serious crimes committed by addicts desperate for whatever it takes to get more Oxy.  And now we have 14 pallets-worth more of it in the hands of those who will make sure that the number of those addicts increases.  If our law enforcement organizations are unable to recover that shipment then we are all going to see more of the kind of social destruction that results from the crazy crimes these desperate Oxy addicts commit.  The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been trying to control diversion of Oxycodone, but this single cargo theft represents a huge quantity that goes well beyond the “fraudulent prescriptions, doctor shopping, over-prescribing, and pharmacy theft” diversion that the DEA is focusing on.


Let’s try to figure out the approximate street value of just the Oxycodone in this cargo theft.  According to the SecuringPharma article, the thieves got away with about 70,000 units.  That’s about 5,000 bottles per pallet which is within reason for a 100 count bottle of small tablets.  I’ll assume that this shipment was evenly divided between the 30mg dose and the 15 mg dose.  According to the National Prescription Drug Threat Assessment 2009 conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center, the average street value per milligram of Oxycodone in 2008 in the U.S. was $1.15.  With this data we can calculate that the estimated 2008 street value of just the Oxycodone in this cargo theft is

( ( (15mg + 30mg)/2 )*$1.15  * 100tabs per bottle ) * 70,000 bottles = $181,125,000.

$181,125,000 !

If this were the market value of a typical drug cargo theft where the drugs only have value if they are sold back into the legitimate supply chain the thieves would probably expect to receive much less than this when they sell the drugs.  But in this case, because the drugs have a higher street value than legitimate supply chain value, they can probably expect to sell this Oxycodone for even more than this value because it is now 2011 and I assume prices on the street only go up.

The estimated street value of this stolen drug is only one aspect of this particular cargo theft.  The cost to our communities of 70,000 more doses of Oxycodone being sold to addicts across the country in terms of family breakdown, job loss, and elevated petty and serious crime, makes this particular cargo theft something that we are going to be dealing with for a long time.

Those who introduced the bipartisan bill into Congress last week recognized the critical difference between the criminal counterfeiting of watches, purses and apparel, and of the much more serious crime of counterfeiting drugs because of the widespread harm they can cause.  That is the proper justification for significantly higher criminal penalties for drug counterfeiters.  If this bill is enacted, the penalties for drug counterfeiting will reflect this greater ability to harm.  But the penalty for pharmaceutical cargo theft should likewise reflect the widespread harm it can inflict on our citizens and our communities over and above non-drug theft.  The sponsors should make these newly enhanced penalties apply to these crimes as well while the bill is still in committee.  Counterfeit drugs are a problem, but so are drug cargo theft and the prescription drug abuse that can result.


So, dear reader, I have a question for you that has been banging around in my head ever since I read about the Oxycodone cargo theft I analyzed above.  As U.S. taxpayers–as the people who will foot the bill for the devastation to our people and our communities that will come as a direct result of this $181 Million crime–what kind of security practices should we expect the owner of a shipment that has a street value of $181 Million to use on that shipment?  What kind of security practices should we demand?  Please leave your answer in a comment below.


One thought on “STEP #1: Raise Penalties For Drug Crimes To Reflect The Widespread Harm They Can Inflict”

  1. Dirk, I would think the senior executives of pharma distribution company could be held liable. This could fall under GxPs for drug distribution where the FDA has a new strategy of going after corporate execs in the courts for major violations, whether they were privy to them or not. I would hope this type of violation would surface in the many conversations within government about securing the pharma supply chain.

    It seems often that the penalty does fit the crime (long jail time for small drug offenders and no jail time for major financial crimes). Legislation on Data Protection and Privacy in the US, which causes enormous financial harm, is weak and penalties rarely reflect the severity of violations.

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