BOSTON (CBS) – People who buy and sell illegal prescription drugs like to keep their transactions secret. But a new website is bringing their illicit deals into the open, at least on the web.
The website is called streetrx.com and it’s run by a Boston-based company called Epidemico. Every month, the site gets more than 100,000 visits and about 5,000 new price reports, according to its founders. If someone buys or sells Percocet in Chelsea for $10 per pill, for example, you can find that information with just a couple clicks.
“People are submitting product names, dosages, and prices,” explains Michel Gilbert, an analyst at Epidemico. “Other uses are submitting ratings of those prices.”
“It’s kind of like a Wikipedia for black market prices for prescription drugs,” says Epidemico co-founder Clark Freifeld. “We really don’t condone any illegal activity,” he says. “We’re not trying to promote it with the site. We just want to collect information about activity that is going on.”
By doing so, they offer an up-close look at something that is otherwise invisible. The benefit to drug abusers is obvious: they get real-time information on what they should be asking and paying for illegal prescription drugs. The site contains information from around the country (as well as many foreign countries) but also offers specifics here in Massachusetts.
“You can just zoom in on your geographic area and browse through the prices for a range of different products,” Freifeld says.
Clicking on a city like Boston, for example, reveals dozens of recent transactions.
“This is a way to go essentially direct to the source, direct to the community to ask them,” says Gilbert. “And we have the volume of response necessary to make some inferences with statistical confidence.”
“There are not a lot of great ways to get access to that information,” Freifeld adds.
And once it’s in the right hands, that information can be incredibly valuable. Police departments, for example, can use streetrx.com to determine the black-market rate for prescription drugs.
“So that when they are involved in undercover operations, they sound credible,” Freifeld says.
The prices on display on streetrx.com also help big pharma do its job.
“Abusers spend their dollars just like you and I do: for what they want,” explains Dr. J. David Haddox. He works with Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the Stamford, Connecticut company that makes the widely-abused painkiller Oxycontin.
A few years ago, Purdue changed the way it makes Oxycontin. The pill is no longer crushable, so it is much less likely to be snorted or injected. As a result, the illegal, street price dropped by about 25%, according to streetrx.com.
“That’s a good indicator that we’re really annoying the right people,” says Dr. Haddox. “StreetRx is a very novel site, it’s sort of a blend of geographic information systems and social media that tells you what the abusing community is doing – and most importantly how much they think the drug is worth.”
When they post that some Oxycontin pills are worth more than others based on how crushable they are, users of streetrx are, incidentally, helping to keep the more addictive pills off the street.
“That tells me we’re making a dent in the right thing,” Dr. Haddox says.
The information addicts provide doesn’t stop there.
Researchers at Tufts University Medical School are hoping to use streetrx.com to get fresh data about how, when, and why people abuse prescription drugs.
Margie Skeer, a Tufts researcher, is hoping “to get so much more information than we even knew was possible. And I think a website like this could allow us to that.”
Skeer’s work targets prevention. She wants to ask the site’s users new questions, thinking they are more likely to be honest because they remain anonymous.
“Getting access to a population that’s underground and who anonymously post to a website like this will allow us to get more information from them that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get,” she says.
Take the hypothetical situation in which the data show that a lot of prescription drug abuse in Metro West Boston is starting in middle schools. In that case, as Skeer puts it, prevention experts might be able to “pinpoint” their efforts there.
It’s another benefit that comes from creating a space for the anonymous postings of a completely underground population.
Epidemico’s co-founder sums it up: “We’re just trying to collect information about something that we know goes on and that’s really not well-understood.”
The site goes out of its way to make sure buyers and sellers cannot use it to coordinate deals. Similarly, the information is purposefully too vague for law enforcement to use it to target individuals.