NEWS

Andrew Strempler, Canadian online pharmacy pioneer, transferred home from U.S. prison

07/22/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 07/22/2016 05:59 EDT
A former Manitoban who was a pioneer in the global internet pharmacy industry has been quietly transferred from a U.S. prison to one in Canada.

Andrew Strempler, 41, was sentenced to four years in prison in January of 2013 for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, in connection with the importing and selling of foreign and fake drugs to American citizens.

He was arrested in Panama and was being deported to Canada, but his flight included a layover in Miami, where he was arrested.

Prosecutors originally wanted Strempler to serve up to 20 years in prison and forfeit $95 million US in alleged proceeds from his business. In addition to his prison time, his sentence included a $300,000 forfeiture and a $25,000 fine.

Strempler has been serving his time at the McRae Correctional Facility in Georgia.

Court documents show he has been working as a unit orderly, was cleared for food service, and was enrolled in a horticulture course.

"Strempler has established a positive adjustment to incarceration and is courteous to staff," the documents say.

Months after his sentencing, Strempler asked to be transferred to a Canadian prison.

On May 13, 2015, Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney approved his request.

Correctional Services Canada confirms Strempler is now in Canada, serving a sentence of three years, one month and 18 days for conspiring to commit an indictable offence.

He was eligible for full parole last month. His release date is Dec. 1, 2015.

Counterfeit drug battle

Strempler's case is the highest-profile of the investigations into counterfeit drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA considers the buying and selling of overseas drugs illegal if they have not been manufactured in FDA-approved facilities for sale in the U.S. — even if they are authentic forms of the medicine.

Some of the drugs distributed by Strempler were found to be counterfeit, court documents show.

In 2006, Strempler sold his company, RxNorth.com, to a former competitor — another Manitoba internet pharmacist named Kris Thorkelson.

In 2012, Thorkelson's CanadaDrugs.com and affiliated companies were also accused of selling fake versions of the cancer drug Avastin in two shipments to more than 100 American oncologists, many of them in California.

At the time, Thorkelson's brother-in-law, Thomas Haughton, acknowledged shipping the drug, although he said he didn't realize it was counterfeit.

CanadaDrugs.com was ordered to stop marketing drugs online into the U.S. through nearly 4,000 websites registered in different countries.

Many of the oncologists have already been convicted for giving foreign, misbranded drugs to their patients.

Just last week, Dr. Robert L. Carter, 74, of Carthage, Mo., was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay $971,854 US in restitution and a criminal forfeiture judgment of $1.2 million.

Under the terms of his plea agreement, Carter is banned from practising medicine in Missouri during the probation period, according to an FDA news release.

Carter received his prescription cancer drugs from Quality Specialty Products (QSP) in Winnipeg, the FDA said.

Court documents reveal that QSP, also known as Montana Healthcare Solutions, was purchased in 2010 by Thomas Haughton.

"These misbranded and FDA-unapproved drugs were administered to Carter's cancer patients and Carter was reimbursed by government and private health insurance programs," the FDA news release states.

Some of the labelling was in one or more foreign languages and didn't have mixing and use instructions in English.

Related company raided

In another twist, RCMP officers raided Thorkelson's Winnipeg-based CanadaDrugs.com headquarters this past March. The federal Justice Department confirmed it is the lead agency in the investigation.

At the time, a spokesperson with the department said the International Assistance Group was involved. It helps Canadian and foreign police and prosecutors by extraditing people to face prosecution or sentencing in another country.

That search warrant remains sealed.

Health Canada suspended CanadaDrugs.com's licence for wholesaling activities in June of 2014. A spokesman confirms it has not been reinstated.

CBC News was unable to reach Thorkelson or company lawyers and media spokespeople for comment. 

In 2012, CanadaDrugs.com issued a statement insisting it is not connected to the counterfeit Avastin case because the company doesn't sell that drug.

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