Judge reinstates license of Manitoba internet pharmacy owner convicted in US case

A Manitoba judge has reinstated the license of a man whose pioneering internet pharmacy business collapsed on charges of selling counterfeit drugs in the US

The College of Pharmacists of Manitoba revoked Kristjan Thorkelson’s license on December 6, 2019, which meant he could no longer practice pharmacy in Manitoba.

In a Feb. 16 ruling, Court of Queen’s Bench Judge Colleen Suche overturned the decision, calling it an “extreme sentence” that did not fit the circumstances.

“The College was unable to point me to decisions where conduct of a comparable nature, at least in terms of the degree of seriousness, resulted in the loss of a license for a pharmacist,” Suche wrote in his decision.

“In fact, looking at decisions from the College and elsewhere, conduct that is arguably this serious has resulted in nothing more than fines.”

Thorkelson has been licensed since 1991 and owned several companies, collectively known as the CanadaDrugs.com Group of Companies. At its height, CanadaDrugs.com became the largest international pharmaceutical company in the world, according to Suche’s decision.

One of the companies Thorkelson owned was River East Supplies Ltd., a licensed wholesale pharmacy in the UK.

River East bought a quantity of the cancer drug Avastin from a Danish company and then sold it for US$78 million to a clinic in the United States.

Shortly after, the clinic told River East that the drugs “appeared suspicious.” River East arranged for the medicine to be returned and informed the company in Denmark, which in turn contacted the European regulator.

An investigation by the United States Food and Drug Administration concluded that some Avastin had no active ingredients.

However, Thorkelson “had no direct involvement in these events,” Suche wrote in his ruling. “They appear to have been passed to him as they unfolded by the pharmaceutical director of River East.”

Fees in the United States

Both the UK Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency and Health Canada have investigated and concluded that no action is needed.

But in 2015, the US Department of Justice filed an indictment in Montana District Court against Thorkeson and his companies. They were charged with smuggling, international money laundering and conspiracy.

Extradition hearings were set, but Thorkelson’s attorneys later reached a plea deal, in which he pleaded guilty to the single charge of mistaken care.

This offence, which does not exist in the Canadian legal system, means that an offender knew that a criminal crime had been committed, but did not inform the authorities and took steps to conceal it.

The basis for the accusation stems from an email Thorkelson wrote to CandaDrugs.com employees on March 8, 2012.

In the email, he said, “CanadaDrugs.com … has absolutely no connection with the sale and offering of Avastin as CanadaDrugs.com has never offered this product for sale.”

He was sentenced to five years probation, including six months house arrest, and agreed to pay a $250,000 fine, $30,000 restitution and other costs.

Three of his companies – CanadaDrugs.com, River East and Rockley Ventures – paid a $5 million fine and $29 million restitution to the US Marshall’s Service. The companies also gave up their domain names and went out of business.

In revoking Thorkelson’s license, the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba “argued that [Thorkelson] was motivated by profit at the expense of its ethical obligations. I see no reason to say that,” Suche wrote.

There was no evidence that anyone in River East had reason to believe Avastin was defective.

Although Thorkelson himself did not inform the UK regulator, he was told that the Denmark-based company that sold the drug to River East would, which it did.

He was also told that the UK regulator would notify the US Food and Drug Administration, which he also clearly did, Suche wrote.

“Cancellation of a professional license is an extreme sanction, ending an individual’s career and livelihood. Accordingly, a licensing authority should be very careful before making such a decision.”

CBC contacted Thorkelson’s attorney, who said he was unable to comment on the decision.

CBC has also contacted the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba for comment.

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