A judge has ordered that a Manitoba internet pharmacy pioneer who faced charges in the U.S. involving importing and selling counterfeit drugs be given back his licence to practise pharmacy.
The Council of the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba cancelled Kristjan Thorkelson’s pharmaceutical licences in November 2019 following his conviction on charges in the U.S.
"The College was not able to point me to any decisions where conduct of a comparable nature, at least in terms of the degree of seriousness, resulted in a pharmacist losing their licence," Queen’s Bench Justice Colleen Suche wrote in a 25-page decision last month.
"In fact, looking at the decisions from the College and elsewhere, conduct which arguably is as serious has resulted in nothing more than fines," Suche said.
Thorkelson was one of six Canadians arrested by U.S authorities in July 2017 and targeted for extradition in connection to the drug investigation.
Thorkelson has been a licenced pharmacist since 1991 and is the former chief executive officer of now-defunct CanadaDrugs.com. In its heyday, the CanadaDrugs.com Group of Companies, which included U.K.-based wholesale pharmacy River East Supplies Ltd., made up the largest international pharmacy business in the world.
In October 2011, River East purchased a cancer drug, Avastin, from Caremed, a wholesale pharmacy in Denmark, then resold some of it to a clinic in the U.S., says Suche’s decision.
Within weeks, the U.S. clinic contacted River East and reported the drug appeared suspect. River East arranged to have the drug returned and quarantined and notified Caremed, who then contacted its European regulator.
U.K. regulator Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority launched an investigation, as did the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who found in 2012 some of the Avastin contained no active ingredient.
Thorkelson "had no direct involvement in these events," Suche said. "They appear to have been relayed to him as they unfolded by the pharmaceutical manager of River East."
“They (regulatory authorities) appear to have been relayed to him (Thorkelson) as they unfolded by the pharmaceutical manager of River East.” – Justice Colleen Suche
The U.K. regulator found no evidence of misconduct by River East or CareMed. Both Health Canada and the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba completed investigations in 2012, but took no action.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an indictment against Thorkelson, CanadaDrugs, River East, two other corporations in the business group and several employees, and charged them with smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy.
In a deal with U.S. justice authorities, Thorkelson agreed in 2018 to plead guilty in a Montana court to one charge of misprision, a U.S. offence in which a guilty person has knowledge of an offence, did not notify authorities as soon as possible, and took steps to conceal it.
The basis for the charge rested on a March 2012 email Thorkelson sent to CanadaDrugs.com employees claiming CanadaDrugs had "absolutely no connection to selling and offering Avastin given that CanadaDrugs.com has never offered that product for sale."
CanadaDrugs, River East, and a third company in the business group, Rockley Ventures, pleaded guilty to introducing and delivering misbranded pharmaceuticals and selling and dispensing counterfeit drugs in exchange for all other charges being dropped.
Thorkelson was sentenced to five years probation, including six months house arrest, and agreed to pay a fine of $250,000 and $30,000 in restitution.
Thorkelson has no prior disciplinary history and has been punished for his actions, including the shuttering of CanadaDrugs.com, Suche said.
Cancelling a professional licence is an "extreme penalty" that needs to be considered in the light of the conduct underlying the offence in question, Suche said.
"While (Thorkelson) did not take steps to notify (the U.K. regulator), he was told River East and CareMed agreed that CareMed would do so" and was told that the FDA was also notified of the situation," Suche said.
"Thus, while he failed in a legal obligation to notify an authority that the Avastin was defective, it seems fair to say that he believed that both the U.K. and American authorities were notified, and in fact they both were notified," she said.
A call to Thorkelson’s lawyer for comment was not returned by deadline Monday.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.