Rx for Web Drug Abuse: Bring in the Feds

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Looking to shine some light into the murky medicinal netherworld of online drug sales, the Clinton administration Tuesday proposed that the federal government begin policing cyber-pharmacies In the bricks-and-mortar world, drugstores are regulated by states, but state authorities have had a hard time overseeing sites based outside their jurisdiction. While this isn't a new issue — states have been grappling with the problems posed by mail-order houses for years — the Web offers a new, more enticing arena for the sale of unregulated products. The new FDA commissioner, Dr. Jane Henney, told TIME Washington correspondent Dick Thompson that the agency's biggest concern is drug sales on the Web. "It seems like there's almost nothing they can do about it," Thompson says.

They'll have to think of something. The proposal is one of many that are sure to arise as the federal government struggles to come up with a regulatory system that makes sense in the Internet age. The most contentious of these is the thorny question of taxation. There are currently no sales taxes on items bought on the Internet, a situation that has states concerned about lost revenue and traditional retailers worried about lost business. As e-commerce grows, it will take a bigger bite out of the sales tax revenue that is the lifeblood of many states. And if the feds plan to police the Web, they'll need to find a way to pay for it. So if you thought that tax-free, unprescribed order of Viagra was too good to last, you were probably right.