LegitScript – Not So Legit?

A firm called Legit Script (LegitScript.com) claims to be protecting people by labeling legitimate Canadian and other non-U.S. pharmacies as “Unapproved” or “Rogue.” This serves the big pharmaceutical interests but not the American consumer. More than that, its founder, John Horton, appears to have exploited his former government position to establish LegitScript.com for his own gain.

The Set Up:

In 2007, John Horton worked in the Bush White House as Deputy
Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).  As
Horton’s LinkedIn page (accessed 3/3/2010) states:

“I served as the primary staff person responsible for
advising the “Drug Czar” and coordinating federal policy on several
issues, including prescription drug-related issues (including Internet
pharmacy policy) and several chemical control issues. I authored the
Administration’s National Synthetic Drug Control Strategy and
co-authored the President’s National Drug Control Strategy in the years
from 2002 until 2007.”

Congress had called for a report from ONDCP to propose a “strategy
to stop advertisements that provide information about obtaining over the
Internet drugs…without the use of a lawful prescription”
(Our emphasis). Moreover, Congress’ request was limited in scope to
controlled substances. Horton, as the chief staff person on this
assignment, apparently switched the focus of the report from preventing access to controlled medicines without prescriptions (with which PharmacyChecker fully agrees) to denying Americans access to any type of medicine, even with a valid prescription, if coming from a Canadian pharmacy.
The absurdity of this switch is that reputable licensed Canadian
pharmacies require prescriptions and won’t even sell controlled
substances to Americans. We believe this switch was encouraged by big
pharmaceutical interests, who make less money when drugs are purchased
at lower cost outside the U.S. To achieve their purpose, the report took
aim at search engines as well as PharmacyChecker.com. The ONDCP’s paper stated:

“Both Google and Yahoo use a third-party system called PharmacyChecker.com (located at www.PharmacyChecker.com)
to verify whether websites seeking to advertise an online pharmacy are
legitimate. However, PharmacyChecker has approved several websites from
Canada that may be operating lawfully in Canada, but offer prescription
drugs to United States consumers…”

The paper noted that “not all VIPPS pharmacies appear to be
recognized in the PharmacyChecker system.”  [VIPPS is the verification
program of the National Boards of Pharmacy in the U.S. and excludes
Canadian pharmacies from membership.]  The paper goes onto to draw the
baseless conclusion that, “For all these reasons, PharmacyChecker is not
an adequate, reliable verification system…”

Approving safe, lawful Canadian pharmacies which require
prescriptions certainly does not make PharmacyChecker.com “inadequate”
or “unreliable.” Quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the paper lays out
the plan that we believe Horton hatched, promoted and attempted to
execute for the past three years:

“The DEA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or ONDCP
will meet with the major Internet advertising services (Google, Yahoo
and others) to encourage voluntary action such that only online
pharmacies in compliance with Federal and State laws are advertised
through the major Internet advertising services. Search engines will be
requested to voluntarily adopt standards that comply and encourage
consumer compliance with Federal and State laws and regulations, and
Boards of Pharmacy standards. This will be done in consultation with the
State Boards of Pharmacy through the NABP.”

As we see it, Horton was setting the stage for his company,
LegitScript.com, to use this “U.S. only” standard to displace
PharmacyChecker.com as the leading certifier of online pharmacies and to
pressure the search engines into blocking advertising of lower cost
pharmacies in Canada and elsewhere. While Horton was a government employee, on March 20, 2007 his company’s domain name legitscript.com was registered: http://www.networksolutions.com/whois-search/legitscript.com.
 On April 16, 2007, Horton’s government office submitted the paper
quoted above to Congress and, having planted the seed, Horton
immediately left office and registered LegitScript as a for-profit company in Virginia and, later, as a not-for-profit entity in his home state of Oregon.

This chronology indicates, at least to us, that Horton manipulated
and exploited his position as Deputy Director of a White House office
for his personal gain. This raises a question in our view of whether his
conduct violated The US Office of Government Ethics’ Misuse of Position policy which states that “Executive branch employees must not use their public office for their own or another’s private gain.”

Misleading Reports:

Horton apparently approached the search engines and others to promote
the use of LegitScript and/or VIPPS in place of PharmacyChecker.com
(and it’s not surprising that VIPPS now endorses LegitScript as a
reputable verification service). Perhaps rebuffed by these companies,
Horton issued two reports, each focused on a different search engine,
and each claiming that over 80% of pharmacy advertisers found were
“illegal” or “rogue” when, in fact, most of these were licensed foreign
pharmacies selling real medicine and requiring prescriptions.

From his trumped up research, Horton went on to make the outrageous
accusation that search engines were “sponsors” of rogue Internet
pharmacies tied to “foreign (mainly Russian, Eastern Europe, and
Chinese) organized criminal networks that are thought to fund other
illicit activities including, in some cases, terrorism.”  There is
little doubt that LegitScript.com’s intention was to embarrass the
search engines and cast doubt on the PharmacyChecker.com Verification
Program.

Horton’s Real Business:

Despite LegitScript’s efforts, traffic to its site has been scant —
less than 900 unique visitors per month in January 2010, compared to
104,000 per month to PharmacyChecker.com (http://siteanalytics.compete.com/legitscript.com/). 
However, as we see it, Horton’s purpose was not to help consumers find
safe and affordable pharmacies, but to help deny Americans, especially
the uninsured, access to lower priced medications.  He has revealed his
purpose in several ways: He dissolved LegitScript as a non-profit organization in Oregon on April 8th, 2009 and then registered LegitScript as a for-profit LLC on August 17th, 2009.  At the same time, records at the Oregon Secretary of State Corporation Division show that Horton registered a firm called Evergreen Government Relations,
giving the same address as LegitScript, apparently expecting to cash in
on his government connections and influence on the behalf of corporate
clients.*  A week earlier, on August 10th 2009, he abandoned his registration at the U.S. Trademark Office
to use “LegitScript Certified” as a certification mark for Internet
pharmacies.   Working for companies to get government agencies to
pressure search engines and domain registers is where the action is for
John Horton.

Making Money:

LegitScript.com adamantly denies that it is a “front for big PhRMA”
and claims that it is funded by its employees.  But unlike pharmacy
verification groups like VIPPS and PharmacyChecker.com, it does not
charge pharmacies a fee for its verification service.  So where does its
revenue come from, or where does Horton get the money to fund it?   The
website says it offers “market research reports” regarding the Internet
pharmacy and online pharmaceuticals markets. And who might be the
customers of such “research”?  We think it’s fair to assume that its big
pharma, including big US pharmacies.  LegitScript.com may not expect to
make money from its verification program, and it doesn’t care because
its money may come from elsewhere.

Be On the Look Out:

If LegitScript.com releases other “research reports,” keep in mind
John Horton’s real agenda. And if search engines exclude safe, low cost
pharmacies from advertising (and one recently did) or, worse yet, block
them from appearing at all, we believe that LegitScript.com and John
Horton, serving his masters, may have had a hand in it.

We at PharmacyChecker.com think that shutting down “rogue pharmacies”
that sell narcotics, or any drug, without a prescription is
right. LegitScript’s efforts in that direction are commendable.  But
shutting down access by Americans to safe and affordable prescription
medication is bad policy, unethical and unfair; and using government
position and influence to get this done seems a misuse of power. These
appear, however, to be the tactics of LegitScript.

Legit? We think not.

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