Spamming The Spammer

June 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The cutesy computer voice that happily announces "You've got mail" should be reprogrammed into a repulsive shout of "You've just been spammed again," with all the unwanted virtual hits that almost every e-mailbox gets every day.

Deleting unsolicited offers for unbelievable deals on Rolex watches, waterfront property and prescription drugs has become as daily a ritual as, well, breathing. The ads are likely to continue to slither through spam filters, but if Rep. Michael Sak has his way the days for illegal drug spammers may be numbered and state residents might be ordering safe prescriptions online in the near future.

The Grand Rapids Democrat is the primary sponsor of HB 4723, a bill that addresses the purchase of prescription drugs over the Internet. He wants residents to be able to do that to get the best price they can, but only if they have legitimate prescriptions and buy from reputable pharmacies that have an online presence.

Sak said he drafted the bill when he learned that each year more Americans are abusing and becoming addicted to drugs that are readily available online with a few mouse clicks but without a prescription. He said recent figures from the federal government estimated that 46 million Americans age 12 and older have abused prescription drugs at least once.

"The Internet is an easy way to purchase non-prescribed drugs, and such access needs to be monitored in order to avoid abuses and dangerous consumption and distribution," he said. "This legislation is intended to prevent the illegal purchase of these substances."

Sak plans to do that on two fronts.

First, by using his legislation to better define certain terms that he feels are ambiguous in the current state law — Public Act 368 — that was passed in the pre-Internet year of 1978. Terms such as "harmful controlled substance" and "Internet" get reworked in his revival of the 29-page law. Then he outlines how a prescription can be filled online, largely by requiring that the prescription comes from a doctor who has actually examined the purchaser and that a supplier fills an order only when such a prescription exists.

Second, by reviewing how other states have attacked the problem and then enlisting the Attorney General's office to pursue unlawful sellers to prevent future sales.

"I know it's a difficult challenge — there is no doubt about it once we get the Internet involved. We want to go after those who are selling drugs over the Internet without a prescription through our state's attorney general and other states' attorneys general, as well as the FDA," he said.

"If you go after the supplier who is doing this illegally and shut them down, it can only enhance and ensure that individuals do not secure drugs without a prescription."

The effort will likely be similar to the way the state went after online cigarette sellers by notifying them that continued sales to Michigan could result in charges. One method to get that message across is to use a virtual sting operation by going online and actually buying drugs without a prescription from an unauthorized seller. Doing that would spam the spammer.

Online cigarette sites like esmoke.com posted notices earlier this year that sales were being discontinued to buyers in Michigan. But as Sak noted, the state's crackdown on smoke sellers was more about getting tax revenue from cigarette sales than anything else. In contrast, he said, his effort is more about safety.

"We have people purchasing harmful drugs on the Internet illegally and many are minors. They're securing Valium, OxyContin and other drugs," he said. "It's kind of in line with the purchase of alcohol, it's in that same capacity. But these drugs have much more significant ramifications and consequences."

Sak admitted that his bill, now in the Committee on Health Policy, is a work-in-progress. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he has had to devote much of the past four months to working on the House budget that recently passed along party lines.

But with that $39.7 billion spending bill on its way to a showdown with the Senate, Sak can now turn his attention to illegal online drug sales. He told the Business Journal that he hopes to see some movement on his bill when the House returns from its summer recess.    

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