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Banned Bounty

Labeled “Research” Chemicals, Doping Drugs Sold Openly on Amazon.com

Amazon bans injectable drugs, but enforcement failures have led to a swell of listings for unproven performance enhancing peptides

Guillem Casasús/Getty Images

It’s not for the needle-shy.

The drugs are sold in vials, and users reconstitute the powder in sterile water, suck the substance into a syringe, stick the needle under their skin, and blast it into their body.

These are peptides, short chains of amino acids that, when made naturally in the body, serve a wide range of functions, including stimulating the release of human growth hormone to build muscle and repair injury. Olympic athletes, bodybuilders, and major leaguers have sought out synthetic versions or variants of peptides, easily manufactured in a lab, in an attempt to speed recovery from injury and gain a competitive edge.

Regulators have a word for it: doping.

The Markup found 66 listings for peptides available for sale on Amazon in August and September, even though the company bans injectable drugs and told The Markup in May it would start cracking down on peptide listings. The peptides we found are not on the FDA’s approved drug list, and it is illegal to sell misbranded or unapproved new drugs. Several are classified as doping drugs by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

We found sellers by the likes of Paradigm Peptides, whose Facebook posts include bulky bodybuilders and a claim that its peptide is best for “weight lifting,” Pharma Grade Peptides, which offered $120 vials of peptides from a business connected to a Los Angeles home that recently sold for $2.5 million, and Quality Research Chemicals, which offered an array of peptides from a signless storefront neighboring an insurance agent in Oklahoma City.

While almost every peptide listing claimed to be for “research” purposes or “lab” use, reviews and product questions for at least 18 listings clearly showed people were taking it themselves—which experts say is dangerous.

After showing Amazon our findings, company spokesperson Mary Kate McCarthy said the listings were “allowed in our store for laboratory or research use only and not for human injection or consumption,” despite the evidence of human consumption that we presented to the contrary. 

“We do not sanction customer misuse or abuse of products,” McCarthy said. “However, out of an abundance of caution, we decided to no longer allow these products and have been removing them since, as we have in this case.”

Every one of the listings has since come down. McCarthy did not comment on how many vials had been sold before the company took action.

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From Experimental Racehorse Drug to Amazon.com    

While the peptides we found are not FDA approved, early enthusiasts believe the drugs may soon replace certain prescriptions, hacking into the body’s innate healing chemistry.

Medical researchers are examining peptides for many possible applications. Researchers are studying the efficacy of synthetic peptides to assist in-vitro fertilization, reduce body weight in patients predisposed to obesity and for multiple approaches to treating cancer. Earlier this year, Cuba claimed its biotechnologists had discovered a peptide that may be helping to curb deaths from COVID-19.

But the enthusiasm for untested peptides is premature, experts warn, and has ignited an illicit underground market for the drugs. About a decade ago, competitive athletes raced to peptides for a performance boost after steroids became easily detectable and, along with human growth hormone, became strictly regulated by sports agencies and federal law.

Olivier Rabin, the director of science at the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, said that TB-500, one of the substances we found for sale on Amazon.com, was originally sold as an experimental veterinary drug for race horse recovery. But when a package of the substance was discovered by customs officials en route to a Tour de France cyclist in 2009, officials opened an investigation and WADA subsequently banned the drug. A slew of peptides are now banned.

Since then, major league baseball players including Alex Rodriguez, Braves pitcher Andrew McKirahan, Dodgers pitcher Josh Ravin, and Indians outfielder Marlon Byrd have been accused of using peptides. The drugs have made their way into doping cases in track and field, cycling and soccer and eventually into neighborhood gyms, where weightlifters and other hardcore hobbyists have an unproven faith that peptides help with everything from tanning, to life extension, to enhancing sexual performance, to building muscle and healing sports injuries.

Many said it was safe with great feedback…. So I just went for it.

Isidro Rendon, amateur bodybuilder

But users also risk potential legal consequences: For example, in Texas, possession of drugs that are unsafe for self-medication can be considered a misdemeanor offense.

Other users opt to obtain peptides more formally with a prescription and through a compounding pharmacy willing to make a drug, though there’s confusion among practitioners we spoke to about the legality of this route. Most of the drugs we found are not approved for compounding and, according to FDA regulations, must still go through the agency’s approval process—like any other new drug.

Nevertheless, providers say getting a prescription ensures a degree of quality and precision in dosing. It’s costly, though, to remove potentially harmful manufacturing by-products and to have a third party test the batch for quality. So the risk-tolerant are looking to the internet.

Some appear to be turning one another on to peptides through Reddit threads, Facebook groups, and YouTube testimonials.

That’s how Isidro Rendon, a San Antonio amateur bodybuilder whose nagging shoulder pain was keeping him out of the gym, caught on to the drug. Rendon said he learned about peptides’ reputation for promoting healing from a YouTube video hosted by a competitive bodybuilder he admires. (Google spokesperson Farshad Shadloo told The Markup that while YouTube does restrict content describing the recreational use of steroids, the video in question “does not violate our Community Guidelines.”)

With a few clicks, Rendon was able to find peptides BPC 157 and TB-500 on Amazon.com. This wasn’t some backroom drug deal. This was Amazon—a company Redon knew and trusted. And reviews showed others did, too.

“Many said it was safe with great feedback,” Rendon said in an interview with The Markup. “So I just went for it.”

Rendon did not respond to follow-up questions about whether he knew the drugs were not FDA approved and the legal issues of obtaining them.

After his shipment arrived, he followed up with a five-star review of his own in January, his bowling-ball biceps taking up much of his profile photo. “Two weeks of use and shoulder pain & knee pain greatly improved,” he wrote. “Pure as gold.”

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Prosecutors Call “Research” Label a Ruse

Amazon.com has a sizable storefront for industrial and scientific products, from microscopes to dental equipment, but few if any reviews on the peptide listings say anything about lab research.

“I have had leaky gut and IBS for the past 3 years,” wrote John Sullivan on a listing for 5 milligrams of BPC 157, a peptide not approved by the FDA, in July. “This product is the first to lessen my symptoms considerably.”

“The ‘animal’ I gave this to, noticed greatly reduced pain within a couple hours from lower back injury that had plagued him,” wrote Sharkly Buyer on the same listing Rendon reviewed for TB-500, winking at the seller’s “Not for human consumption” disclaimer.

“This product alone saved the animal from inevitably having to undergo more costly less beneficial medical treatment at the hands of ignorant doctors who foolishly shun all performance enhancing substances,” the buyer concluded.

The disclaimer was just a simple disguise and cover.

Sam Louis, former assistant U.S. attorney

All but nine of the listings we found on Amazon.com claimed that the drugs were for research or were lab chemicals or otherwise were not for human consumption. The rest did not have these specific disclaimers but listed the drugs under Amazon’s “Industrial and Scientific” category.

But owners of other sites who’ve claimed peptides were being sold for research have still faced prosecution.

“The disclaimer was just a simple disguise and cover,” said Sam Louis, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas who prosecuted peptide sellers several years ago before joining a private practice. Louis explained that such cases generally require showing that a defendant intended or had reason to know the drug was for people, and prosecutors point to communication or advertisements to prove the point.

In 2013, an Illinois man was indicted after he advertised peptides he’d imported from China to bodybuilders, selling direct to consumers on sites (since taken down) like aminooutpost.com and genesispeptides.net, according to the indictment filed in the United States Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. He ultimately pleaded guilty to selling misbranded drugs, among other charges, and was sentenced to probation and community service.

In another indictment, filed in the United States Court for The District of Maryland, a Florida man who paid bodybuilders for endorsements and frequented their conventions was nabbed after selling peptides to a government agent. A raid of his home revealed $2 million of misbranded drugs, and in 2015, he too pleaded guilty and received six months of home confinement.

McCarthy, the Amazon spokesperson, declined to comment on whether Amazon was aware sellers “disguised” drug listings under research labels.

“We require all products offered in our store to comply with applicable laws and regulations and developed industry-leading tools to prevent unsafe or non-compliant products from being listed in our stores,” McCarthy said. She did not explain why some peptide listings had been live and selling to customers for years.

The Markup attempted to reach all the peptide sellers we found, through Amazon’s message platform and when possible, via phone, social media, and standalone business websites.

“Someone was using my son’s account without my knowledge and selling the items you are questioning,” said Yossi Segelman in an email response to questions about Pharma Grade Peptides.

“The items have since been removed and the account is now inactive,” Segelman said.

Someone was using my son’s account without my knowledge….

Yossi Segelman, responding to questions about Pharma Grade Peptides

Another seller, Pendmo Supplies, shuttered its entire business after being contacted by The Markup.

A customer service representative who gave her name as Jennifer and declined to give her last name answered the phone at Paradigm Peptides. She told The Markup the company sells peptides “under a research umbrella,” which she believed kept them in compliance with Amazon policies and U.S. law.

Jennifer also acknowledged the market is really for human use, adding she takes two herself.

“Peptides are administered via injection,” she said. Otherwise the “stomach acid would destroy it.”

A representative for Trident Peptide, who declined to give a name, responded to an email The Markup sent to info@tridentpeptide.com, saying Trident Peptides makes an effort to enforce the research-only rule.

“We try to then stop selling our products to customers who make reviews clearly showing they abused the product,” the representative wrote. “However, on Amazon, they use nick names on their accounts, so their real name is not the buyer name 75% of the time. Also checking this is extremely hard.”

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“Unwitting Guinea Pigs” for Untested Substances

“The thought of otherwise young healthy individuals taking such products is extremely distressing,” Amy Eichner, of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said in an email to The Markup. “Messing with hormones can have myriad long term effects including infertility, changes in growth rates, suppression of your own natural hormones systems, and probably many other unknown side effects.”

Louis, the former prosecutor, said consumers looking to the internet to get the drugs a “little bit cheaper” are putting themselves at risk for harmful drug interactions, unintended side effects, and the consequences of poor manufacturing. He once prosecuted a case involving a different drug sold online that contained gypsum, a mineral commonly used in chalk and drywall. 

“It really can be a life and death decision,” Louis said.

The thought of otherwise healthy individuals taking such products is extremely distressing.

Amy Eichner, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency

Amazon declined to comment on the safety issues posed by peptide listings.

Some of its customers, reviews show, were worried. One customer wrote that he sought a lab report from the seller, only to be ignored.

“I bought 4 vials, and now they are in the trash can” wrote the buyer, who identified himself as Samuel, in a review of BPC 157 last year. He wrote it would have been crazy to blindly trust them.

“I’m not so mad to inject or ingest an unknown powder in my body,” he said.

Around the same time, army joe38 wrote in a review of the same product, “I had a dangerous allergic reaction that needed to be treated with prednisone with this stuff. Poor quality control, contaminated.”

Dr. Rand McClain, a regenerative and sports medicine physician in Santa Monica, Calif., says he frequently has to warn patients against buying peptides online, where sourcing and purity can be suspect. He has prescribed peptides to his patients from compounding pharmacies he trusts, and he believes that when used under proper medical supervision, peptides are safe and legal.

Mclain said Amazon should be making sure sellers aren’t trying to skirt U.S. drug laws with false disclaimers.

“Amazon needs to do a better job,” Mclain said.

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Amazon Has Long Struggled to Keep Bad Products off Its Pages

Amazon has had a long and public struggle with keeping counterfeit, unsafe, and banned items off its e-commerce platform, where just about anyone can sign up to post just about anything. The e-commerce intelligence firm Marketplace Pulse estimates Amazon has about three million active third-party sellers worldwide—a sprawling business policed through a combination of automated detection of problematic language and other risk signals and workers tasked with pulling things down after people complain.

McCarthy stated that Amazon stopped more than six billion “suspected bad listings” from posting last year, an often cited statistic, but elsewhere the company has acknowledged that “bad actors” have slipped past safeguards.

An investigation by The Markup earlier this year found Amazon’s enforcement failures left open a backdoor to nearly a hundred listings for banned goods, including products to use drugs: marijuana bongs, dab kits used to inhale cannabis concentrates, and crackers that can be used to get high on nitrous oxide.

Among the banned items we found on Amazon.com were two pill presses, one of which was dubiously labeled a candymaker. It wasn’t an isolated event. A pharmaceutical grade pill press that had been sold on Amazon.com a few years before, and before the company banned them, had been used to press fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription opioids, according to federal law enforcement. Officials said the drugs led to a mass overdose in Tennessee. At least two people died.

“It may be more profitable to have the ‘wild, wild west’ of sales, but it’s also much more dangerous for consumers,” said Lori Wallach, director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

In May and as part of our earlier investigation, The Markup brought the sale of peptides to Amazon’s attention, noting that people appeared to be injecting them. Company spokesperson Patrick Graham responded to our questions with a denial, saying it was “not true that we sold injectable drugs.”

“We did sell lab chemicals that were clearly marketed as being for research use only and not for human consumption,” Graham wrote in an email. “Out of an abundance of caution we are restricting them going forward.”

Strength Products, one of the sellers The Markup identified in May, continued to operate on Amazon.com for weeks, hawking the same drugs in other posts. When The Markup again contacted Amazon about Strength Products in June, the storefront was shuttered. Strength Products did not respond to requests for comment.

But The Markup found active listings for peptides on Amazon.com—many with reviews indicating human consumption—as recently as last week. More than a quarter of the peptide listings had been around for at least a year, showing the extent to which Amazon has failed over time to enforce its own rules.

For its own part, Amazon has argued it is not liable for harm caused by third-party products sold on its website by invoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, claiming it’s covered under the law, which states websites are not responsible for third-party speech that appears on their sites. Recently, a federal court and California court have disagreed, and this summer Amazon signaled it may be amenable to legislation that would explicitly make online marketplaces liable for unsafe products—as long as any rules also apply to its competitors.

It may be more profitable to have the ‘wild, wild west’ of sales, but it’s also much more dangerous for consumers.

Lori Wallach, Public Citizen

The Markup found Amazon’s own customer tools were used to offer people what they needed to start dosing. Amazon’s recommended items included those needed to inject the drug, such as bacteriostatic water and syringes, and complementary or competing options for peptides. In reviews and product question features, customers exchanged tips on how to use the drugs.

McCarthy, the Amazon spokesperson, said that the “frequently bought together” feature is automated and based on customer behavior and that reviews that “advocate an illegal activity are prohibited by our guidelines and are removed when discovered either during our moderation process or when brought to our attention,” adding those reviews have since been removed along with the listings.

That didn’t stop countless customers from viewing the information before the listings were pulled.

“[Y]ou will need 10 mL of Sterile Water or equivalent, depending on the method of use,” wrote James Heisey, in an answer to another customer’s question about how to reconstitute BPC 157.

“Your cartilage and tendons wouldn’t be perfect with one bottle,” added Michael Carey in response. “It does work and everyone’s body is different.”

“Good for just about any tissue repair, for better results, combine with BPC 157,” wrote an anonymous reviewer on a listing for TB-500 in July.

One customer browsing a peptide listing thought to ask, “should I only buy peptides from licensed pharmacies?”

The emphatic reply from another customer: “yes, you should.”

Correction

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Rand McClain's last name.

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