Italy police dismantle drug ring sending opioids to US

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More than 400,000 people in the US have died of overdoses linked to opioid prescription drugs like oxycodone since the early 2000s

Italian police said Wednesday they had dismantled a Sicilian drug ring that illegally shipped the doctor-prescribed opioid oxycodone to the United States, arresting five people.

Another three people have been placed under house arrest while a doctor has been barred from practising medicine following the investigation by police in the cities of Syracuse and Catania.

In total 29 potential suspects have been identified in the case, including five doctors.

The suspects "organised an international traffic of narcotic substance of the oxycodone type... illicitly acquired in Italy and sold in the United States of America," Italy's national police said in a statement.

Accusations include criminal association linked to international drug trafficking, fraud against the state health service, receiving stolen goods and forgery, police said.

Doctors involved in the scam prescribed oxycodone -- the main ingredient in medications for severe pain, such as OxyContin -- under the names of dead people or those who did not need it, police said, adding that the drug was then procured from pharmacies free of charge, paid for by the state.

Nearly 3,000 false prescriptions were written, Italian news outlets reported.

"The criminal association misled the National Health Service through the complicity of professionals, who in fact volunteered to issue, even in the name of unsuspecting third parties, hundreds of prescriptions with no therapeutic basis, without making control visits," the police said.

The drugs were then sent in multiple shipments to the United States, packaged in a way to conceal their true contents, using fictitious sender and recipient names.

A map provided by Italian authorities indicated that the drugs were sent to various points along the eastern US, including New Jersey, West Virginia and Florida.

One of the suspects living in the US was caught accepting one of the packages in January, and arrested by US authorities.

Police seized 115,000 euros ($140,000) from one doctor, who was banned from exercising his profession for a year.

More than 400,000 people in the United States have died of overdoses linked to opioid prescription drugs like oxycodone since the early 2000s.

Pharmaceutical makers and distributors stand accused in thousands of lawsuits country-wide of stoking an ongoing addiction and overdose crisis.

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