When ex-University of Maryland pharmacologist Clinton McCracken began ordering narcotics from a Web site in the Philippines, he joined a booming marketplace that has exploded with the Internet's rise.
But federal officials say consumers face real risks as they increasingly go online to buy pharmaceuticals of all kinds.
"You don't know where these are made, or how they're made or under what conditions," said Ilisa Bernstein, the Food and Drug Administration's director of pharmacy affairs.
Indeed, lab tests by Baltimore police revealed that a syringe given to police by McCracken contained no buprenorphine, indicating that he bought bogus drugs that might have been tainted.
His fiancee, Carrie John, a fellow pharmacologist, died of an allergic reaction Sept. 27 after injecting what she thought was "bupe," and McCracken now faces drug charges because of other drugs found in their Ridgely's Delight home.
Last week, the international police agency Interpol and the World Health Organization coordinated a weeklong crackdown aimed at online drug sales worldwide. The initiative, carried out in cooperation with enforcement agencies from the United States and two dozen countries, resulted in 72 Web sites being taken down and the confiscation of 167,000 illicit and counterfeit pills, according to Interpol.
McCracken, 33, was prevented from importing drugs at least once. On Sept. 15, days before John's death, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent him a letter saying that agents had intercepted a FedEx parcel of morphine and OxyContin.
After a seizure, Customs notifies its federal investigative partners. But Special Agent Gary Boggs of the Drug Enforcement Administration said the DEA rarely focuses on the "user level."
"What we want to try to do is work at the narrow end of the funnel, which would be the sources of supply," said Boggs, who works in the Office of Diversion Control. "When you're dealing with foreign sources, it's not that easy."
Officials say the overseas online trade is difficult to monitor, let alone combat. A seller might use a hundred Web sites, Bernstein said, constantly taking some down and putting up others. Sellers sometimes mail their product from country to country before shipping it to the U.S. with a phony Canadian return address.
"There is no way of knowing how many physically hard sites there are out there," Boggs said. "The Internet is sort of like the Wild West."