Dodgy drug distributors are actively targeting Aussies to buy study pills online, and experts say they pose major health risks

ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty ImagesMore than 800 students take part in the end-of-term exam in poplar woods at Fengqiu No.1 High School on July 3, 2015 in Fengqiu County, China. (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
  • Growing numbers are illegally importing pharmaceuticals aimed at increasing productivity for study or work.
  • Research shows these drugs often have little positive impact and may have negative side effects.
  • At least one drug distributor is specifically targeting Australian consumers.

Australians are buying pharmaceuticals online in the hope it will improve their work or study, but they are putting themselves in danger, experts have told Business Insider Australia.

You’ll find plenty of stories online extolling the virtues of smart drugs and ‘nootropic’ cognitive enhancers or stimulants to keep you studying through the night, as well as how to buy them, what to buy and interviews with people who’ve taken them.

In part, it shows how the drugs have become so normalised due to internet influencers like podcaster Joe Rogan and ‘biohacker’ Dave Asprey speaking at length about study drugs such as modafinil, which helps users stay awake and has been approved for the treatment of narcolepsy.

But according to Dr Steve Kisley, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Queensland, people who import or use these drugs in Australia without prescriptions are doing so illegally.

“They’re not the most restricted class of drugs, but it’s illegal to have them without a doctor’s prescription,” he said.

Dr Kisley told Business Insider Australia he’d previously conducted research in this area and found the effect of modafinil on improving concentration “was quite dissipating”.

He said the danger in importing the drugs is that you may not get what you pay for when buying online. “Just because the website says they source it from [pharmaceutical] companies doesn’t mean they did,” he warned.

But even if the product you receive is geniune, there still may be risks associated.

Dr Kisley said he was well aware people were importing drugs like Ritalin, Adderall and modafinil from overseas retailers and said there are dangers involved in consuming these drugs without medical advice.

“If you mix them with other drugs there’s a potential for interactions,” he said. “If you are vulnerable there is the risk of actually having an onset of psychosis with some of these.”

Dr Kisley said the health dangers in using these drugs could be anywhere from anxiety and agitation, to a racing heart rate, or in rare cases suicidal thoughts or psychosis.

“All drugs have their risks, particularly stuff like Ritalin,” he said. “It’s an amphetamine, if you are vulnerable there is the risk of actually having an onset of psychosis.”

He said modafinil was safer but that there could still be side effects, particularly if combined with other substances.

Associate Professor Bruce Baer Arnold at the University of Canberra Law School told Business Insider Australia it was unclear just how many students imported drugs to help them study, but that the available numbers were concerning.

He said the research showed people taking these drugs were “not going to give you an edge over other students” but that many thought they would.

‘G’day Mate’: how one company sells study drugs

On one website Business Insider Australia visited, photos showed the storage and handling of the drugs. Another website was clearly targeted at Australians, with a “G’day Mate” message displayed on the landing screen, despite being hosted in Canada.

The drugs available were listed as well as the supposed manufacturers. The website also offered free samples of modafinil in exchange for free marketing in the form of user-generated YouTube unboxing videos.

The website offered tracked shipping with Australia Post allowing the postal service to track the packages from pickup to delivery.

When contacted by Business Insider Australia, an Australia Post spokesperson said the organisation is not in breach of any laws or regulations.

“We co-operate fully with all relevant authorities – including customs and state and federal police – to support their activities, which involves screening of mail items through gateway facilities to detect illegal activity,” the spokesperson said.

India’s Sun Pharmaceutical is a major producer of modafinil sold online by third parties. Business Insider Australia was able to obtain evidence that drugs with Sun Pharma branding were sold and received online without a prescription.

When quizzed about how their drugs got into the hands of online suppliers, to be illegally sold to Australia, a spokesperson for Sun Pharma said on 24 April that it would provide a reply. At the time of publication, no such reply has been received. Business Insider Australia is not suggesting any wrongdoing on behalf of Sun Pharma.

According to Reuters, Sun Pharma recently received an infringement notice from the US Food & Drug Administration after an inspection of the company’s Dadra facility in India, showing the company had failed the FDA’s inspection on 11 counts.

In 2018, the company also failed safety checks around cleanliness and maintenance of machinery.

“The Indian pharmaceuticals regulator acknowledged there are quality problems with Sun and secondly the regulatory wasn’t coping with those problems,” Associate Professor Baer said.

“That’s a really damning indictment of their domestic regime, it’s worrying for Australians buying over the net.”

Drug regulator asleep at the wheel

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has long been found wanting in ensuring safe health products.

Dr Ken Harvey, associate professor at the School of Public health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University, told Business Insider Australia that TGA regulation on ‘nootropics’, as well as around certain pharmaceuticals was lacking.

“My impression of the TGA as a regulator is that they don’t regulate,” he said. “They don’t take action whether they’re captured by industry, lazy, or incompetent.”

He suggested the TGA was more than capable of leaning on Sun Pharma in Australia around the illegal sale of its products online, but was unwilling.

Dr Arnold said the rise of people using pharmaceuticals to study had corresponded with the rise of the use of supplements marketed as ‘nootropics,’ or brainpower enhancers, which had proliferated because of Australia’s arguably lax medical regulation.

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