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Virtual Pharmacies: No Rx Required

Every day, more and more people can find more and more things on the Internet. And it's not just data. CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin investigates how easy it is to get prescription drugs -- without a prescription -- and order up a potential health risk with just a couple of computer clicks.

The Internet has changed Bill Graham's job practically overnight. "It's added a lot more work, a lot more work," he says.

Instead of searching for narcotics like heroin and cocaine, Graham, a U.S. Customs mail specialist, spends his days looking for contraband prescription drugs ordered, without prescriptions, from foreign Web sites.

Graham has had to become sort of a pharmacist as well as a customs inspector. That means learning, for example, how to sniff out the one package sent from Greece that has anabolic steroids carefully concealed in a false-bottomed box underneath jars of olives.

Graham finds 25 to 30 illegal medication shipments every day. Last year, customs agents intercepted more than 9,000 drug packages coming into the United States. That's four times as many as were seized just the year before.

But how many shipments are getting past the inspectors? Customs admits they have no idea. "Not any idea. I couldn't begin to guess," says Graham.

Then there are people who rely on drug shipments getting past customs. "I have no insurance, says Grant Haynes. "I am one of the 40 million Americans that is not covered by any insurance plan."

A freelance writer battling insomnia and stress, Haynes needs a steady supply of Valium to get through his days. But doctors won't refill his prescriptions without expensive office visits.

"I've never taken an illegal drug in the sense of a street drug or even marijuana in my life," Haynes says.

Haynes, like thousands of other Americans shopping foreign Web sites for everything from diet drugs to antidepressants, routinely breaks the law to get his Valium. But should he be treated like a criminal?

"We're not really focussed on the individual consumer. Certainly not someone who is getting drugs for their own use," says U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly. "That's not our enforcement focus. We're focussed on people who are bringing it in for wholesale purposes."

In an attempt to stem the tide, Customs has established a new Cyber-smuggling Center which zeroes in on the hundreds of drug peddling sites around the globe. One of the biggest, Vitality Health Products, which is headquartered in Thailand, was recently shut down by Thai police and U.S. Customs agents who say Vitality profited by putting Americans at risk.

"There wasn't a doctor involved," asserts Kevin Delli-Colli, director of the Cyber-smuggling Center. "There wasn't a pharmacist running the company. The individual that was responsible for running the company is a fugitive."

Kelly claims the danger is real. "The American public just doesn't know what it's getting."

Grnt Haynes knows what he's getting: peace of mind. "I have been on it for two years now," he says. "There are no problems and no side effects that I'm aware of."

Meanwhile law enforcement officials will continue to patrol the borders as best they can, in the borderless world of the Internet drug trade.
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