Manitoba

Canadian internet pharmacy pioneer fights loss of pharmacy licence in court

The College of Pharmacists of Manitoba has stripped online pharmacy pioneer Kris Thorkelson of his licence to practice — and his lawyer has taken the college to court, asking a judge to get it reinstated.

Case in court the same week Trump proposes rule allowing states to import prescription drugs from Canada

Kris Thorkelson, CEO of CanadaDrugs.com, and his affiliated companies and associates were accused of selling $78 million US in unapproved and counterfeit cancer drugs to U.S. doctors. His lawyers negotiated a plea deal in 2018. In December 2019, the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba cancelled Thorkelson's licence to practice pharmacy (CBC)

The College of Pharmacists of Manitoba has stripped an online pharmacy pioneer of his licence to practice — and his lawyer has taken the college to court, asking a judge to get it reinstated.

The college sent a note to pharmacy managers on Dec. 6, advising them that Kris Thorkelson's licence was being cancelled under section 23(3) of The Pharmaceutical Act.

It means he is longer permitted to practise pharmacy in Manitoba.

That section of the provincial legislation states a pharmacy licence or registration can be cancelled if someone has been convicted of an offence that is relevant to his or her suitability to practise pharmacy or operate a pharmacy.

Thorkelson and several of his companies, including CanadaDrugs.com, were charged with selling and importing $78 million US worth of unapproved, mislabeled and, in two cases, counterfeit cancer drugs to doctors across the United States. U.S. government prosecutors said it happened over a three-year period, ending in 2012. 

Thorkelson's lawyers negotiated a plea deal.

Part of the agreement was to shut down CanadaDrugs.com, surrender domain names of the websites it used to sell the drugs, cease operations on July 13, 2018, and not disclose American customer information to businesses outside of the United States.

Winnipeg-based CanadaDrugs.com ceased operations on July 13, 2018, as part of a plea deal in the U.S. (CBC)

The deal, agreed to in the Federal District Court in Montana in April 2018, also saw Thorkelson pay a $250,000 US fine and serve six months of house arrest, followed by 4½ years of probation.

CanadaDrugs and two subsidiaries paid a $5-million US fine and forfeited $29 million US.

In exchange, the U.S. court dismissed the indictment against five other co-defendants, and withdrew extradition requests for all of them.

'Abuse of process' alleged

In court documents filed this week, Thorkelson is asking the Court of Queen's Bench to direct the college to reissue his pharmacy licence for the rest of 2019 and all of 2020.

He wants the college restrained from publishing any more information about the decision to cancel the licence and instead require it to tell pharmacy managers that it has been reissued.

Thorkelson also wants the court to declare that the college's registrar unfairly influenced the council before it cancelled the licence, and that "the manner in which the college, council and registrar and/or acting registrar of the college have pursued Mr. Thorkelson since Dec. 14, 2017, constitutes an abuse of process."

Thorkelson wants a judicial stay of proceedings in three complaints against him and his former pharmacy, CanadaDrugs.com, by the acting registrar, registrar and his former pharmacy partner and later competitor, Daren Jorgenson.

Jorgenson says Thorkelson has "every legal right" to ask for a judicial review on a decision made by a self-regulatory body, but adds, "I think he should have had it [his licence] cancelled the day after he [pleaded] guilty."

Jorgenson also wants to know why it took the college so long to strip Thorkelson of his licence.

"The Manitoba College of Pharmacists has a duty and responsibility to protect the public and I strongly feel they did not carry out that duty in the case of Kris Thorkelson and the fake cancer drugs," he says.

Daren Jorgenson is a pharmacist and former business partner of Kris Thorkelson. The two parted ways in the early 1990s. (CBC News)

A college spokesperson says decisions to cancel a pharmacist's licence are taken very seriously.

"Often these deliberations involve complex issues and legal processes," Gus Gottfred wrote in an email to CBC News.

"These processes take time and we do not apologize for working thoroughly and methodically to ensure protection of the public."

Thorkelson argues the college has been aware of the case against him in the U.S. since 2012 and did an internal investigation but took no action against him. He also says there's a two-year limitation period on prosecutions under the Pharmaceutical Act.

"There were other less draconian findings/decisions that could have been made by the committee and/or council that would have been sufficient and proportionate to the circumstances giving rise to the Misprision Conviction, while not  unduly preventing Mr. Thorkelson from practising his chosen profession," the court document reads.

Thorkelson's Winnipeg-based lawyer, Curtis Unfried, could not be reached for comment. 

The college's lawyer, Joseph Pollock, would not comment, saying the case is now before the courts.

Pollock would only say he will respond with the college's position by the next scheduled court date, on Jan. 9, 2020.

Shabbir Imber Safdar, the executive director of the public health group, has repeatedly said the penalties imposed on Kris Thorkelson are 'a slap on the wrist and an insult to the victims of Canada Drugs’ crimes.' (Courtesy: Partnership for Safe Medicines)

Concerns about importing prescription drugs from Canada

Thorkelson's case has been followed closely for years by The Partnership for Safe Medicines.

The San Francisco-based advocacy group even wrote a letter to the judge during the case, urging harsher penalties to deter future crimes.

"The same week that the White House wants to import drugs from Canadian wholesalers, a criminal Canadian wholesaler is trying to get back into the pharmacy business. It reinforces everything that is wrong with the idea of importing Canadian medication," executive director Shabbir Safdar said.

Earlier this year, Unfried told CBC News his client has abided by all of the plea agreement terms and is "no longer involved in the IPS [internet] pharmacy industry in any way, shape or form."

Kris Thorkelson is asking the Court of Queen’s Bench to direct the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba to reissue his pharmacy licence for the rest of 2019 and all of 2020. (Courtesy kristhorkelson.ca)

Manitoba's Companies Office lists Thorkelson as a shareholder of three Winnipeg outlets of The Prescription Shop. 

He also owns two medical clinics attached to his pharmacies, and a property management company called My Place Realty.

In June, Thorkelson applied to the U.S. court for permission to travel to Italy and Greece for a two-week family vacation. The court rejected his request. A previous request to travel to Barbados was also denied.

"It must be remembered that Thorkelson is not serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty to a crime that allowed him to make an astounding profit from the victimization of the United States' ailing citizens. Instead, he is serving a five-year term of probation with few restrictions on his liberty," District of Montana Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen wrote in his July 2019 decision. 

"In order for probation to accomplish these goals, it must actually stand as a form of punishment and not as a mere label unaccompanied by any real restriction on the liberty of the person upon which it is imposed. It must reflect the fact that it was imposed on a person who [pleaded] guilty to selling fake cancer medications to those dying of cancer."

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