CanadaDrugs.com still has Manitoba pharmacy licence
Online company's owner is awaiting an extradition hearing to face trial in the U.S.
The online pharmacy at the centre of an extradition case to the United States is still licensed to operate in the province by the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba, which says it's watching the court proceedings "carefully."
Six Canadian men arrested under the Extradition Act and released on bail last week are awaiting extradition hearing dates, which have not yet been set.
If convicted, Winnipeggers Kristjan Thorkelson, Thomas Haughton, Ronald Sigurdson, Darren Chalus and Troy Nakamura, and B.C. resident James Trueman could face up to 20 years in prison and fines.
U.S. federal prosecutors accuse them, as well as Winnipeg-based company CanadaDrugs.com, and affiliated companies in the United Kingdom and Barbados of illegally importing and selling $78 million worth of unapproved new drugs, misbranded drugs and counterfeit drugs to American doctors between 2009 and 2012.
In 2014, American authorities charged the six men with smuggling goods into the United States, conspiracy and international money laundering.
A U.K. affiliate, River East Supplies, is accused of falsifying customs documents. CanadaDrugs.com and related American companies are accused of not storing the drugs properly, at temperatures cold enough to keep them safe.
The allegations have not been proved in court and CanadaDrugs.com has denied its connection to the Avastin investigation. However, several bank accounts have already been frozen as potential proceeds of crime.
Registrar Susan Lessard-Friesen was not available for an interview Monday, but the provincial College of Pharmacists said in a statement: "We will be watching the outcome of the proceedings in the U.S. carefully. We will continue to be vigilant through the processes that have been proven to safeguard pharmacy practice and patient safety in Manitoba. Manitobans can be confident that pharmacies licensed by the College are safe.
"Keep in mind CanadaDrugs.com has two licences, the pharmacy is licensed through our college and their drug establishment licence which covers their distribution is through Health Canada."
In 2014, Health Canada suspended CanadaDrugs.com's Drug Establishment Licence, meaning the company could not sell prescription drugs to pharmacies until the federal department's concerns were addressed. That licence was reinstated on Aug. 3, 2016, following a Health Canada Good Manufacturing Practices inspection.
The extradition arrests are a big step forward in this case, according to a former U.S. prosecutor for the Department of Justice.
"It's important that the Canadian authorities have taken this seriously," Samuel Louis told CBC News in an interview from Houston.
"It's important for the Department of Justice, FDA and other law enforcement officials who are involved in protecting our drug supply chain to be able to use whatever means possible particularly the extradition process to be able to hold those individuals accountable."
Louis is the former deputy criminal phief of the Program Fraud group for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Southern District of Texas.
He supervised a task force made up of federal agents from the FDA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Postal Inspection Service that prosecuted people involved in trafficking counterfeit, unapproved and adulterated medicines.
"It sends a strong message that the U.S. is vigilant and that it will be successful and can bring those to justice who will use the internet or use facilities outside the U.S. to traffic in counterfeit drugs that will hurt the American public," said Louis, now a lawyer and member of The Partnership for Safe Medicines.
Winnipeg pharmacist Daren Jorgenson agrees.
"Is Canada a safe haven for online counterfeit pharmacists shipping into the U.S.? Do we want to be known as that?"
Jorgenson graduated from the University of Manitoba's pharmacy program with Thorkelson in 1991, and they bought their first pharmacy together.
Soon after, they went their separate ways, but became part of the first wave of Canadian internet pharmacists selling medication to Americans.
Jorgenson left the industry around 2008 because he felt the drug supply chain was becoming increasingly unreliable
"Basically, all my competition started selling drugs they were sourcing overseas from, in my opinion, unsafe countries and marketing them as Canadian. I couldn't compete with that," he said.
Thorkelson stayed in the business and it has since become one of the biggest and most successful in Canada.
Neither he nor his lawyer was available for a comment Monday. Lawyers for the other Winnipeg men arrested also had no comment.
CanadaDrugs.com is a certified member of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, but general manager Tim Smith says it doesn't participate in or have oversight over wholesale drug business.
"CIPA provides mail-order prescription services to individuals for their own personal use, requiring a valid prescription for a maximum 90-day supply. The wholesale drug business identified in the recent news report is completely separate from CIPA," Smith said in a statement.
With files by Joanne Levasseur