Justin Pearson of St. Cloud was 24 when he died on Christmas Day 2006, poisoned by drugs he had obtained in large quantities from 17 different online pharmacies.

A Bemidji pharmacy that supplied some of the drugs is now under investigation and two pharmacists who worked there have been disciplined and fined by the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.

Thanks to new rules Pearson's family helped enact, it's the first time the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy has acted to stop pharmacies that fill online prescriptions signed by doctors who have never met their patients in person, Cody Wiberg, the board's executive director, said Wednesday.

In a separate case, a pharmacy in Byron, Minn., was ordered to pay a record fine of $25,000 for filling 4,500 Internet prescriptions between Aug. 1 and Oct. 18, 2007. In addition, two pharmacists there were disciplined and fined for their role in dispensing drugs for two Internet companies.

Minnesota is among at least eight states that have passed laws prohibiting electronic prescribing or sales without a legitimate prescription. Addiction experts say Internet pharmacies have fueled the drug habits of millions of Americans.

Justin Pearson's father, Dan, pushed for the Minnesota law in 2007 that made it illegal to dispense drugs based on an online questionnaire, which many drug websites used.

The Legislature then toughened the law this year by requiring specific drugs, which are commonly sold by Internet companies, be dispensed only if a doctor or other medical professional has personally examined the patient at some time.

Pearson said he's now working on federal legislation that also will require a similar doctor-patient relationship for some Internet drug sales.

It's too late for his son, he said. "But we can save others."

"It's just ridiculous that you can pick your pills, the quantity and the dosage [from these online companies] and 24 hours later, it's on your doorstep,'' Pearson said. "Prescription drugs are now the number one abused drug in the U.S."

The investigation into Market Pharmacy in Bemidji began when Pearson filed a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy after he found numerous prescription bottles and evidence on his son's computer that the drugs were from online sales. The Bemidji pharmacy filled some of those prescriptions, but the actions against the pharmacy and its employees are not directly connected to Pearson's death.

According to the board's investigation, the pharmacy dispensed 3,118 controlled substance orders to patients in 16 states between April 1, 2006, and June 26, 2007. The orders came from SOSmeds.com, which has since been shut down. The orders were based on prescriptions written by a doctor in Florida and another in Virginia, Wiberg said.

Although the investigation into that case is continuing, two pharmacists responsible for dispensing the drugs have been disciplined. Robert Paulson, who told investigators that he may have dispensed about 1,500 of those drugs, was fined $5,000 and placed on probation for three years.

The other pharmacist, Thomas E. Kriz, dispensed about 500 of those Internet prescriptions, was fined $1,000 and put on probation for two years.

Wiberg said the investigation into the Byron pharmacy began after a routine inspection in 2007. Investigators discovered Byron Marketplace Pharmacy was dispensing prescriptions generated by two Internet companies, ZestRx and ProcessRx.

The ProcessRx website encouraged customers to "research their own health problems and independently discover the available options for treatment." The site touted: "No Embarrassing Trips to the Doctor."

Customers filled out a short questionnaire that was submitted to a physician.

The ZestRx site referenced a "virtual medical exam" that included an online medical questionnaire.

A Pennsylvania doctor authorized the Internet prescriptions.

Donald Steege, the pharmacist-in-charge at the Byron pharmacy, dispensed 2,088 Internet prescriptions, according to the state board's investigation. He was fined $10,000 and put on probation for three years.

The other pharmacist, Lori Passe, was fined $1,000 and put on probation for three years for personally dispensing 286 Internet prescriptions.

Passe told investigators that the Byron pharmacy filled about twice as many Internet prescriptions as it did prescriptions from walk-in customers.

Wiberg said he doesn't believe Minnesota has a widespread problem with pharmacies entangled with illegal Internet drug sales. "I would find it hard to believe that many pharmacists would be involved in something like this,'' he said.

The stiff penalties in these two cases, however, likely would serve as a deterrent, Wiberg said.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788