Drugs

Behind FedEx’s Alleged Billion-Dollar Drug Trafficking Crime: Diet Pills

Can’t the feds at least go after addictive drugs?

Photo Credit: Phentermine.com

The federal war on drugs has now become a war on diet pills.

FedEx Corp. pleaded not guilty in federal court in San Francisco on Tuesday to 15 charges related to shipping illegal drugs that allegedly earned it $820 million, prompting some media outfits to ask, “Is FedEx America’s Biggest Drug Dealer?

The 26-page indictment, handed down by a grand jury in mid-July, accuses FedEx of conspiring with online pharmacies—the Chhabra-Smoley Organization from 2000-'08, and Superior Drugs from 2002-'10—to distribute eight prescription drugs: three diet pills, three anti-anxiety meds, one sleeping pill and a low-level painkiller. Most of the charges concern the diet pills: Phendimetrazine, Phentermine and Diethylpropion.

“The advent of Internet pharmacies allowed the cheap and easy distribution of massive amounts of illegal prescription drugs to every corner of the United States, while allowing perpetrators to conceal their identities through the anonymity the Internet provides,” U.S. attorney Melinda Haag said in a statement accompanying FedEx’s indictment and order to appear in federal court. “This indictment highlights the importance of holding corporations that knowingly enable illegal activity responsible for their role on aiding criminal behavior.”

Most of all, this indictment highlights the absurdity of the federal war on drugs. Start with FedEx’s role as a clandestine drug smuggler when the business delivers more than 10 million packages a day. Do some illegal drugs pass through FedEx’s hands? Probably yes. In March 2013, its competitor, United Parcel Service, settled a similar case with U.S. prosecutors for $40 million.

But this case isn’t a 21st-century French Connection, with bricks of heroin, or duffle bags of crystal meth, or addictive opiates. This case of great criminality, according to Prosecutor Haag, is about diet pills and anti-anxiety medicines, such as Diazepam, known as Valium. My dearly departed grandmother used to give one of those to my equally departed grandfather every morning, calling it a vitamin. It seemed to help. And as far as people using the Internet to conceal their identity and secretly buy these illegal drugs, that allegation is an open invitation to ridicule by late-night comedians.

It takes about 1.5 seconds on Google to get to Phentermine.com (“Schedule IV controlled substance”), where there are very public and candid testimonials about weight-loss struggles of people using that drug, as well as some of the others on the FedEx indictment. As for anonymity, there are before and after pictures as well!  

“I am 5'6' 29 years old and weighed in yest at 176 pounds today I weighed myself i know its bad to keep jumping on the scale but it says 172.5 I am excited I want to reach 140 pounds 135 if possible how much did everyone lose their first month??? do bigger people lose faster or is that a myth??? I am wondering how much I will lose my first month I dont have time to exercise I am going to try though.”

It’s all a little sad, vulnerable and anxiety-provoking—hence the mix of diet pills, anti-anxiety drugs and sleep aids. But is this a terrible criminal activity, especially in America when one of the First Lady’s pet issues is ending obesity? And eating better? And exercising?

While FedEx has plenty of legal talent to respond to prosecutor Haag’s indictment, a little bit of digging through legal files turned up a few tidbits about the possible progeny of this prosecution. Apparently, the online phamacies named in the indictment have been targeted in previous FBI investigations and subsequent convictions. In other words, the feds seem to be addicted to recycling drug cases and obtaining convictions and big fines.

For the record, FedEx, when appearing in federal court Tuesday, said it had never been told by the government to stop service to any of the online phamacies. And it disputed that it made $820 million from this part of its business, which, if true, could lead to a $1.6 billion fine.

There’s a final postscript to this ludicrous case. If you go to one of the offending online pharmacies in the indictment, privacyrx.com, guess what happens? You’re redirected to NobelPills.com, which isn’t in the weight loss business anymore; it sells Viagra and all its varieties.       

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).