Black market boom: Painkillers

“Today, people would kill for opiate substances; during this period there are many new dealers trying their luck.”

 (photo credit: PIXABAY)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
The pandemic, which has led to an increase in feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety and stress, has also caused a boom in the black market of prescription drugs.

“Because of the coronavirus, there has been a dramatic increase – in my estimation of almost 50% – in the number of people buying prescription drugs over the Telegram [encrypted messaging] app,” reported A., director of one of the prominent underground groups on Telegram illegally selling prescription drugs.

“Mostly what people want now is opioids [painkillers].”

How do you explain this?

“People are more anxious and more in need of sedatives. It is difficult for them to convince their doctor to give them these drugs, so they turn to us and get them easily, delivered to their house. There has also been an unprecedented increase in the number of people starting to sell drugs over Telegram amid the coronavirus. Ordinary people who need money during this period are starting to sell drugs privately because they understand that it has a hot market now.
“Today, people would kill for opiate substances; during this period there are many new dealers trying their luck,” said A.
“In the past year, there has been a significant growth in the number of people who turn to Telegram for medication,” agreed N., who sells prescription drugs over Telegram. “There are a lot of requests for sleeping pills; a lot of people suffer from severe anxiety. There is a high demand for drugs like Attent, Ritalin, Percocet, Clonex and more.” According to the interviewees, those who purchase prescription drugs over Telegram usually face complications obtaining the requested drug through normal channels, thus turning to the illegal option.
“During this period, I have been in more pain and the depression is only increasing. The doctor gave me special prescription drugs for three months; I finished them in 22 days and he refused to give me more, so here I can get them easily without any connection with the doctor,” says M., who started buying the drugs over Telegram three months ago.
Aren’t you afraid of the health risks involved?
“No, I prefer to take the risk but let the pain and suffering pass,” one customer responded.
“In normal non-COVID times, people turn to us in order to not be dependent on a doctor or prescription, because of the shame of using certain drugs or for the adrenaline and excitement of doing something forbidden,” explains R., who also sells drugs over Telegram. “But during this period more reasons are added: people are laid off from work, debts are piling up and they are looking to escape the situation. Because of the coronavirus it is difficult to get appointments and there is a risk of infection, testing and quarantine.
“It is true that to me you pay three times more, but you get the medicine to your house without anyone knowing about it and without endangering yourself or getting involved in getting put into quarantine or getting infected. So why not?”
T. also joined the Telegram consumer drug community during the coronavirus period.
“My mother suffers from severe pain that worsened during the pandemic, and the prescription drugs given by the doctor do not help,” she said. “The drugs that can help, the doctor does not want to prescribe her. What’s more, the medical bureaucracy at this time is a nightmare, and taking an older woman to walk around the HMOs and clinics can be dangerous. So I bought drugs on Telegram safely, and it makes it easier for my mom. I just cannot stand to see her suffering.”
Despite the cost
“The drug market, which also includes the illegal trade of prescription drugs, is in fact run like any other market, depending on supply and demand,” explained Dr. Hagit Bonny-Noach, from the Department of Criminology at Ariel University and the committee of the Israeli Society for Addiction Medicine.
“During the pandemic there were changes in both supply and demand. This required different coronavirus-adapted conduct on the part of both consumers and providers. For example, coronavirus restrictions have meant that fewer materials and their derivatives have come from countries of origin through international borders. It is possible that the shortage of heroin smuggled into Israel is what contributed to the increased demand for opioid substitutes.” The coronavirus pandemic also caused changes in the way black-market drugs and prescription drugs were purchased: people also began purchasing illegal prescription drugs online. Because of the deteriorating economic situation during the pandemic and rising unemployment, there has also been drug dealing by patients with prescription drugs, especially among those affected by the economic crisis. Because the majority of people who use these prescription drugs are not yet addicted and get large or higher amounts than their regular prescription, there are cases where they become dealers of these drugs. They do this relatively easily because there are also handwritten prescriptions, especially those given by private doctors.
Some people take advantage of the loophole that currently exists in the law, in which the medical history by a private doctor is not centralized, and thus receive prescriptions from several private doctors – buying a quantity that is also sufficient for dealing. The body responsible for supervising prescription drugs is the Health Ministry, but has its hands full in this period, and it is likely that the issue of enforcement, prevention and treatment of prescription drug trafficking is not the top priority.
Who are the purchasers of black-market drugs?
“There are some populations that use illegal prescription drugs: the majority are those who received these substances via prescription and became addicted to them. Some are no longer getting their prescriptions renewed due to the danger of becoming addicted, and some are still getting prescriptions but the dosages are not enough for them, so they turn to supplementing the quantities on the black market despite the high price.
“The second group is comprised of people who regularly use a variety of other substances, including cannabis, and occasionally also use these prescription drugs. The third group is those with a severe heroin or bath salts addiction, who also consume prescription drugs such as fentanyl, which has become very common in recent years among them; Clonex; and more.”
Acute danger
According to David Pepo, chairman of the pharmacist’s union, the lack of adequate enforcement is what allows the black market to flourish.
“Why doesn’t a cop get onto Telegram, make an appointment with a dealer and arrest him?” he wondered. “There is not enough enforcement. That is what allows this market to grow.”
“There is currently a discussion in the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee about a significant increase in the number of psychiatric drugs seized on the black market,” noted a Health Ministry source. “These drugs are not given by a doctor or pharmacist, so there is a danger because we do not know under what conditions the drugs were stored and from where they were purchased, and there is acute danger of overdose and side effects – especially when it comes to opiate drugs, [where] overdose can cause respiratory bleeding and heart attacks.
“The bulk of the drugs we know to be sold during this period on the black market and the drug market are opiates, the uncontrolled dosage of which, as stated, can cause death. Psychiatric drugs like Clonex are also in high demand during this period on the black market, and they include a very wide range of side effects and the risk of addiction. When doctors prescribe them, they do so in measured doses and for a certain period of two or three weeks. When someone buys it on the black market in quantities greater than they actually need, there is a real danger of addiction.
“[Oversight] by the Health Ministry’s Enforcement Division, alongside the police, have greatly increased in recent months, and we are seeing a dramatic increase in trade in very dangerous drugs sold over Telegram or in kiosks. We take this seriously in terms of the dangers that can arise as a result, and we are working with the police against the people who are selling this.” “As long as information is received on the subject, the Israel Police can act in a determined and professional manner to enforce the law, including with sites that are not managed in Israel and are not subject to Israeli law,” the Israel Police affirmed. “Any complaint received by the police will be handled in the most appropriate manner.” 
Translated by Tzvi Joffre.