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Can Rogue Pharmacies Be Roped In?

Joyce Jenkins, 65, a retired accountant living in Myrtle Beach, S.C., used to spend $500 a month on medicine. Then she discovered an online pharmacy in Canada, where she now gets her cholesterol and osteoporosis preparations for $300. "I was finding it almost impossible to buy drugs," says Jenkins. "Going online has made a big difference in my lifestyle."

If the feds have their way, Jenkins won't be buying cheap foreign drugs much longer. The Justice Dept. is escalating its crackdown on so-called rogue pharmacies -- online sites and local storefronts that import drugs without the Food & Drug Administration's approval. Having achieved little success with earlier efforts to shut down these operations, the feds are gearing up to file a wave of civil lawsuits against affiliated storefronts that they believe have led to an explosion of seniors buying drugs illegally online.

On Oct. 8, the first of those suits got under way in a Tulsa courtroom. Justice attorneys have asked a federal district court judge in Oklahoma to shut down the 85 storefronts of Rx Depot, owned by Carl Moore. He denies government charges that his stores abet the illegal importation of drugs. The judge is expected to issue a ruling any day now. Says William Hubbard, an associate commissioner at the FDA: "A win would send a strong message."

COST OF LIVING. Indeed it could. But the Fed's strategy carries a substantial public-relations risk. Most of the people who buy from these sellers, after all, are elderly, poor, or uninsured. And the rogue pharmacists are exploiting the growing political outcry against high drug prices.

Over the summer, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to make importation of drugs from Canada legal under certain circumstances. Though few think the full Congress will act, the vote gave many lawmakers a chance to show their constituents how sensitive they are to rising medical-care costs. "It's not fair or right that seniors have to pay so much for the drugs they need to live," says Barbara Harbin, owner of Discount RX Connection in Boca Raton, Fla.

Moreover, even if the feds shutter the shops, there's no telling whether prosecutors will put a dent in the gray market for imported drugs now worth an estimated $5 billion a year, or 4.8% of all the drugs sold in the U.S. The legal war on rogue pharmacies has been going on for five years, but the authorities have few successes to brag about. State regulators have slapped fines on doctors who illegally provide prescriptions online without actually seeing the patients. For the most part, however, doctors have simply shrugged off those efforts.

"GOING TO THE MAT."Justice sees an opening in the Moore case. If it can persuade the judge to take action, it'll likely go after a host of other storefronts as well. The law is clear: It's illegal to import drugs not manufactured at FDA-approved plants. But the agency has long recognized an exemption for those bringing in a limited, personal supplies of lifesaving drugs they can't find in the U.S.

Now, rogue pharmacies are arguing that cheap foreign drugs are a necessity for ailing Americans and that they should be allowed. That's the argument Moore is expected to make in court. He didn't respond to repeated attempts to reach him, but he told the Miami Herald: "We're going to the mat."

Even if the feds prevail in shutting down the storefronts, rising demand for cheap drugs will almost certainly ensure that people will continue to find ways of getting them. Already, some seniors are holding Tupperware-style parties to teach novices how to place Internet orders. This is another war on drugs that won't be easily won. By Charles Haddad in Atlanta

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