Andrew Strempler, a Manitoba man who was one of the first entrepreneurs in the cross-border online pharmacy industry, has been arrested in Florida and is facing charges related to the sale of foreign and counterfeit medicines, CBC News has confirmed.
The founder of Mediplan Pharmacy — also known as RxNorth.com — appeared in a federal court in Miami on Thursday. Strempler, 38, is expected to be arraigned next week on charges tied to an online pharmacy business, the paper said.
Strempler faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the charges against him, U.S. authorities are also going after $95-million dollars of what they allege are proceeds of crime.
The current charges relate to a 2005 seizure of drugs being shipped by Mediplan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration claimed many of the drugs promoted as Canadian actually came from other countries. An FDA investigation was launched in 2006 after the agency advised consumers against purchasing several prescription drugs from Mediplan.
At that time, Strempler called the FDA warning a tactic designed to prevent uninsured Americans from getting drugs from outside the U.S.
He also said his company regularly tested the drugs and declared them safe and reliable.
Strempler later sold the company to CanadaDrugs.com, another Winnipeg-based online pharmacy group that is currently being investigated by the FDA in connection with two more cases of counterfeit cancer drugs found in the U.S. earlier this year.
"It's somewhat unfortunate because when some of these infractions occurred, the business, in my opinion, was 100 per cent legitimate, at least that was the intention," David MacKay, the former executive director of the Canadian Internet Pharmacy Association, said after he heard of the charges.
MacKay, who has known Strempler for years, said he believed Strempler had "every intention of conducting an ethical and professional business" aimed at helping U.S. patients keep drug costs down.
MacKay said that because trade was "spreading worldwide and the product was being sourced from outside of Canada, the chances increased for any pharmacy to be penetrated by counterfeit product."
FDA looking at other online pharmacies
The current charges come two years after Strempler agreed to have his name removed from the Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association registry. That move came after disciplinary hearings in which the association alleged Strempler's company sold drugs from overseas locations that weren't approved by Health Canada.
Strempler started operating in a free-trade zone in Curacao, a tiny nation in the Caribbean, shortly after.
Andrew Strempler was deported from Panama and flown to Miami, according to Barry Golden, with the U.S. Marshals Department in Miami.
He said Strempler was taken into custody by waiting U.S. Marshals and Customs and Border Protection officials.
"Clearly the FDA was looking for him and had interest in arresting him for some time and unfortunately he stepped foot in the country," MacKay said.
An FDA spokesperson would not comment specifically on the arrests, but urged customers to be careful when making online drug purchases.
"Many of these websites are operating outside of the United States. However, the internet's broad reach allows these websites to reach U.S. consumers," Sarah Clark-Lynn said in an email statement.
"[The] FDA cannot assure the safety and efficacy of products that are purchased outside of legitimate channels. This also means that we or the consumer cannot be sure that the products received are what the seller is claiming them to be, even if the seller says the products are 'approved drugs.'"
The FDA is also looking at other cases linked to online pharmacies.
CBC News has obtained a U.S. grand jury subpoena sent to American oncologists earlier this year in connection with an investigation into counterfeit versions of the cancer drugs, Avastin and Altuzan. RxNorth is named in the subpoena, as well as several other Canadian entrepreneurs and companies.
United States District Court Indictment