Pusher On The Net - Pam Zekman Investigates

Channel 2 News / Pam Zekman

CHICAGO (CBS 2) More than 47 million people have abused prescription drugs at least once. The CBS 2 Investigators look at how the Internet is fueling what experts call this growing health crisis. An addict can connect with pushers on the Net from the privacy of their homes.

A computer and a credit card are all it takes to score addictive drugs on the Internet. No prescriptions are needed.

To ensure the package arrives before their pills run out, cyber addicts are tied to their computers day and night.

"It was all consuming looking for Websites. Trying to keep track of it. Where am I going to get it next? How am I going to get it," said one west suburban woman.

She created a spreadsheet to track her orders from 10 different Websites. She was addicted to the painkiller Vicodin, taking up to 40 pills a day.

"I had to keep them coming in at all costs. At all costs," she said.

She even borrowed $25,000 on her home to pay for her addiction and didn't seek treatment until her habit threatened to cost more than money.

"I would be falling asleep constantly,” said the woman, who is now a recovering addict. "I was driving my children around in the car in this type of condition."

Chicago emergency rooms have reported a huge increase in the number of overdoses from painkillers and stimulants. All too often, they're fatal.

"We have seen an increase in overdose deaths related to the non-medical use of prescription drugs, absolutely. This is nationwide and in every city across the country," said Carol Falkowski at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minnesota.

Here in Chicago, Todd Rode, an alcoholic, was taking legally prescribed anti-depressants. Rode died when he added powerful painkillers bought illegally on the Internet to the mix.

"I was floored that he could get this over the Internet without any kind of monitoring. It's just horrendous," said Lisa Christenson, Rode’s sister.

So who are the typical cyber addicts? You'd be surprised. Many are stay-at-home moms high on stimulants.

"What some of them have really talked about is almost feeling like a super mom. Get the kids to where they need to be, and clean the house and cook dinner and get all those things done," said Beth Sack at Linden Oaks Hospital in Naperville.

Others are stressed out professionals.

"We had one person from the Board of Trade, a trader, that was getting 500 Vicodins a week," said Jake Epperly at the New Hope Recovery Center at Lincoln Park Hospital.

"I think the problem of online purchases of drugs is epidemic and its going to get larger," Epperly said.

Recent crackdowns in the United States have prompted illegal cyber dealers to go international. That makes it tougher for the feds to track them down.

"We work with foreign governments, but in the end we have no legal authority in another country so it’s very difficult to regulate internet pharmacies located off shore,” said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner William Hubbard.

And that's why it was easy for us to score drugs like online. We ordered Vicodin, Xanax, a strong anti-anxiety drug, and Ritalin, a potent stimulant from three different Websites.

The Vicodin was ordered from a Website registered in Greece, and was sent from Amsterdam with a prescription from a doctor in the Netherlands.

None of the sites required us to provide a prescription. Instead we just filled out a medical questionnaire.

"We view that as a sham. It leads to a prescription that is also a sham," Hubbard said.

And these Websites demand charge outrageous prices. For example, our generic Xanax cost $153 on the Internet, compared to the average pharmacy price of about $15.

But did we get what we ordered? Tests at the University of Illinois School of Pharmacy revealed the Ritalin and Xannax were real. But instead of Vicodin, we got a less potent, but potentially addictive painkiller Tylenol3 with codeine.

"All of these drugs turned out to be prescription drugs, and they can be deadly if overdosed," said Adam Negrusz, associate professor at the University of Illinois.

As for recovering addicts, the constant barrage of e-mails peddling drugs could always trigger a relapse.

"If you can't handle that you have to pretty much throw your computer away because it’s there always in your face," said the west suburban woman, who was addicted to the painkiller Vicodin.

To find out which Websites are legitimate, be sure the Websites require a prescription from your doctor. It should also give a phone number to contact them. When you do, find out where they're located and licensed.