HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut is one of the first two states to join a new effort to combat the opioid crisis by educating people about online pharmacies and how to dispose of prescription drugs.

MedicineSafe, a partnership between the Centers for Safe Internet Pharmacies and the Partnership for Drug Free Kids, aims to coordinate the efforts of many different state agencies in keeping addictive painkillers out of the wrong hands.

North Carolina was the first state to sign up over a year ago.

“They just re-signed with the program,” Marjorie Clifton, the executive director of the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP), said in a recent interview. Connecticut signed on at the end of May of this year.

MedicineSafe uses its website — medicinesafe.org — to warn people to be careful when buying prescription medications. Clifton said that in the first six weeks North Carolina used the program, “we got 80,000 click throughs.”

The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 97 percent of online pharmacies are illegitimate and unsafe.

“At any given time, there are approximately 35,000-50,000 active online pharmacy websites. Of these, approximately 96 percent are operating illegally, out of compliance with state and federal laws and/or patient safety and pharmacy practice standards established by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP),” the Centers for Safe Internet Pharmacies says in a report.

Contributed photo
Marjorie Clifton, the executive director of the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) (Contributed photo)

In his speech at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in April, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “Although the sale of prescription opioids without a valid prescription is illegal, we find offers to purchase opioids all over social media and the Internet, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Google, Yahoo, and Bing.”

He went on to say that “the easy availability and online purchase of these products from illegal drug peddlers is rampant and fuels the opioid crisis … and Internet firms simply aren’t taking practical steps to find and remove these illegal opioid listings. There’s ample evidence of narcotics being advertised and sold online.”

MedicineSafe is trying to help buyers beware.

“If you purchase your prescription medications online, make sure you do so from a verified online pharmacy,” is a message on its website. “What looks like a discount online pharmacy from Canada or the U.S. could be a rogue website and criminal enterprise from anywhere in the world.”

The site also offers a verification tool — VerifyBeforeYouBuy.org — for visitors to ascertain whether they are using a legitimate online pharmacy. VerifyBeforeYouBuy.org is a companion site with a database of authentic online pharmacies.

Clifton said the beauty of MedicineSafe’s website is that it is “one-stop shopping.”

“Anything related to prescription drugs, anything you need, any question you have, is either answered on the website or you get directed to where you can get the answer,” Clifton said.

Clifton said “It definitely is our goal to get all 50 states to join in this effort.”

“We know that state budgets and resources are limited to fight this crisis are limited and we believe we can help states like Connecticut by being a partner,” Clifton said.

What do the state partners get by joining MedicineSafe?

Clifton said MedicineSafe has a three-tiered approach — providing tools and resources through the website, giving state coalition members customized materials they can distribute to schools, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, community organizations and other stakeholders, and running geo-targeted online ads through Facebook, Google, and Bing to raise awareness of the resources available on the website.

Clifton, herself, has been touched by the drug overdose crisis. “Two years ago I lost my brother to addiction,” she said, but she quickly added that there isn’t any family she knows who hasn’t had a family member or friend impacted “the very same way.”

“We need to find new ways to combat this terrible disease,” she said. “Throwing everybody in jail isn’t the answer.”

The opioid epidemic death totals keeps climbing across the country and Connecticut is no exception as more than 1,000 people died in 2017 from the crisis.

Nationwide, the Center for Disease Control’s provisional data shows that 72,855 people will likely died of drug overdose during the 12-month period ending Nov. 30, 2017 — a rise of 13.2 percent over the previous 12-month period. The agency reports that 49,466 of those deaths involved at least one opioid.