KXJZ News found while misuse of these drugs could be deadly, law enforcement and health officials around the state are largely ignorant of the problem. But in Los Angeles, an innovative team of health officers and law enforcement is having some success. Health care reporter Kelley Weiss went to Southern California and followed the team into L.A.’s inner city.
We’re on a drug raid at a shop in South Central Los Angeles. But, the cops aren’t looking for meth or crack cocaine on this bust. They’re searching for illegal prescription drugs in a botanica or herbal remedy shop.
The walls are covered with pictures of the Virgin Mary. Scented candles are burning and animal skins are tacked to the wall.
Searching in the back of the store is Sgt. Steve Opferman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He says the religious icons are a mix of Catholicism and Haitian voodoo called Santeria.
Opferman: “So this is typical, we often find the shrines in the back, this is an area where he would be most likely treating the patients, have them lay down and examine them and so forth.”
Opferman is part of a team called the Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force or H.A.L.T – made up of cops and county health officers. It started about ten years ago when two children in Orange County died after getting prescription drugs from an unlicensed provider.
H.A.L.T. pharmacist Daniel Hancz dumps out the contents of a brown paper lunch bag onto a table.
Hancz: “Here we found some used needles, looks like used needles and syringes, there is fluid in them and it’s likely that he injected someone with them and those are old needles.”
The team finds piles of antibiotics around the shop in buckets and drawers – things like penicillin, pain relievers and steroid injections. If misused, many of these drugs can be deadly.
Erasmo is the shop owner and a faith healer. He says he doesn’t think it’s dangerous to sell medicine without a license. Health officer Erick Aguilar translates.
Erasmo: “He says people ask him all the time but he doesn’t normally sell it, he sells a few things here and there just a couple things and he points to that, that’s all he says he has.”
Today the team is raiding five locations in this neighborhood. A couple blocks over at a general store -- or tienda -- owner Vicente Zacamitzin sells groceries, cigarettes and party favors. But police also find antibiotics. When asked if he knows it’s illegal to sell these drugs Zacamitzin says:
“I don’t know, when I start to run our business, nobody teach me what I have to do, nothing.”
Most shop owners, like Zacamitzin, are cited with misdemeanors – they pay a fine and do community service. But repeat offenders could go to jail or have their stores shut down.
The taskforce comes away with only a few boxes full of seized pharmaceuticals today. Health officers Erick Aguilar and Daniel Hancz say drugs aren’t being sold as openly anymore.
Aguilar and Hancz: “In the past, years ago, it was on display and we’d come out of businesses with, you know, truckloads.”
While L.A. County is making progress, others around California can’t say the same. From local law enforcement all the way to the state Department of Public Health, the sale of illegal prescription drugs isn’t on the radar of most agencies.
Hirai: “I think probably the biggest thing is not knowing how much is out there and being able to really track that, since it is so underground.”
That’s John Hirai with the Medical Board of California. His job is to go underground and bust people who are illegally selling prescription drugs. In Southern California he says the majority of the sales are in the Latino community – mainly among recent immigrants. Despite the problem, there’s no statewide tracking or enforcement. That’s why Hirai says there should be more teams like H.A.L.T.
Hirai: “Unlicensed practice and illegal dispensing is so complex you really need to have those special teams that are able to go out and focus on that.”
Law enforcement and health agencies from around the country are slowly starting to see the problem. And, some are calling the H.A.L.T. team for advice because it’s the only one like it in the nation.
But many in the medical community say enforcement isn’t enough.
Blumberg: “There’s nothing like talking with somebody one on one.”
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Dean Blumberg, with UC Davis Medical Center, says physicians need to warn patients about the dangers of illegally sold prescription drugs.
Blumberg: “If people have a health care provider that they know and trust, and they hear it from them, that’s going to have the most impact in terms of education.”
And says Blumberg patients need access to better options than the neighborhood tienda or weekend swap meet.