FedEx, UPS are being investigated by DoJ for illegal online-pharmacy deliveries

Companies were served subpoenas dating back to 2007

An Associated Press report published on Nov. 16 says that the two companies have been served subpoenas dating back to the 2007-2009 period, involving shipping packages from online pharmacies which presumably contained illegally dispensed pharmaceuticals. It’s not clear to what extent there is criminal liability, if any, for the shipping activities. A FedEx spokesman told AP that the company has no plans to plea bargain with the Dept. of Justice; while UPS has indicated, in a Nov. 1 quarterly earnings report, that “We have received requests for information from the DOJ in the Northern District of California in connection with a criminal investigation relating to the transportation of packages for online pharmacies that may have shipped pharmaceuticals in violation of federal law," and that UPS is “exploring the possibility of resolving this matter.”

That Northern District office has been aggressively pursuing activities around online pharmacies and has recently convicted operators of various online pharmacies. However, the $500-million settlement announced last year with Google Inc. for illegal promotion of online pharmacies came out of the Rhode Island federal district, and was initiated in 2009. The Northern District investigation, if it has been ongoing for five years, indicates some degree of hesitation, although it's certainly not the first time that federal investigations continue for many years.

FedEx says that “there has been no illegal activity,” according to AP, maintaining that it cannot and does not open packages to determine the legality of shipping their contents. But one element of the earlier Google settlement might have a bearing: the DoJ noted that even after being asked to cease operations with certain online pharmacies (which are in violation of federal law when they sell drugs to US citizens without prescriptions), Google continued to do so.

The DoJ investigation may or may not connect with Operation Pangea, an international coordinated clamp-down of online pharmacies that has been conducted annually for the past five years by FDA, DoJ, and numerous law-enforcement organizations outside the US like Interpol. Pangea V, conducted during late September and early October this year, resulted in the shutdown of more than 18,000 illegal pharmacy websites and the seizure of about $10.5 million worth of pharmaceuticals, according to FDA. The law agencies are pursuing these investigations as both a public health measure and as a means of shutting down the distribution of counterfeit pharmaceuticals that are often dispensed via this channel. There are legitimate online pharmacies (certified by the VIPPS program of the National Assn of Boards of Pharmacy), but it has long been known that many online pharmacies can operate outside the reach of state or national legal