In its ongoing effort to crack down on the nation’s prescription-drug epidemic, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has gone after doctors, pharmacists, pharmacy chains, wholesale drug suppliers — and now FedEx and UPS.
Even though the DEA will not confirm it is engaged in the probe, both companies have disclosed in corporate filings that they are targets of a federal investigation related to packages shipped from online pharmacies.
Based on the allegations, it appears federal officials are suggesting the shipping companies take responsibility for the prescription drugs inside packages they are transporting.
FedEx officials have called the California-based probe “absurd and deeply disturbing” and a threat to customers’ privacy.
“We are a transportation company — we are not law enforcement, we are not doctors and we are not pharmacists,” FedEx spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald said in a prepared statement.
Though the probe has been unfolding quietly for several years, the investigation is now gaining headlines and attention from politicians, including U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
In a letter sent to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart and Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month, Mica asked the leaders to recognize “the difficulty and unfairness of requiring those carriers to assume responsibility for the legality and validity of the contents of the millions of sealed packages that they pick up and deliver ever day.”
Mica — who reports FedEx as one of his top campaign contributors — told the Orlando Sentinel that, although he is “concerned by prescription drugs” and their distribution, it would be inefficient and ineffective for federal authorities to turn UPS and FedEx into deputy enforcers of drug policy.
“You can’t stop commerce; you can’t open every package,” Mica said. “I’m only asking them (the DEA and DOJ) for a reasonable approach.”
Mica did not offer a specific solution but said he hoped the two sides come to “some sort of accommodation.”
When contacted by the Sentinel for comment, a DEA spokesman, Special Agent Mike Rothermund, said he would not “confirm or deny if there’s an investigation.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco did not return calls for comment.
Federal law prohibits purchase of controlled substances — which include drugs such as Vicodin, Xanax and Adderall — without a valid prescription from a doctor. There must be a real doctor-patient relationship, so prescriptions written by “cyber doctors” who rely on online questionnaires are not legitimate under the law.
FedEx officials say they have had a long history of cooperating with federal law enforcement agencies.
“We have no interest in violating the privacy of our customers by opening and inspecting their packages in an attempt to determine the legality of the contents. We stand ready and willing to support and assist law enforcement,” Fitzgerald stated. “We cannot, however, do their jobs for them.”
The company said it asked the DEA for a list of online pharmacies suspected of illegal activity so it could stop shipping from those businesses.
But the DEA has refused to provide FedEx such a list, Fitzgerald’s statement said.
A UPS spokesman said he could not comment on the investigation.
But in a February corporate filing, UPS said it is cooperating with the investigation and is “exploring the possibility of resolving this matter, which could include our undertaking further enhancements to our compliance program and a payment.”
FedEx officials say that, rather than working with the industry to implement solutions, the Department of Justice is focusing its attention and money on the potential prosecution of delivery companies.
“This is unwarranted by law and a dangerous distraction at a time when the purported illegal activity by these pharmacies continues,” Fitzgerald wrote in a statement.