Field Trip: Fellows tour illegal prescription drug hot spots in Los Angeles

Published on
May 30, 2009

What happens when 20 health journalists walk in to a convenience store in downtown Los Angeles and ask about buying tetracycline without a prescription?

One storeowner showed the participants in the California Broadcast Fellowship a box of pills called Ampitrexyl, which she offers to customers as a substitute for antibiotics. Customers self-diagnose and come into the store for medications, she says. If she stocks them, she sells them, but will not advise customers on what to take. Her store, and many others according to members of the Health Authority Law Enforcement (HALT) Task Force, have begun selling substitutes for medications which are packaged like familiar prescription drugs but sellers say actually contain nonprescription medications.

Most stores and sellers that serve the Hispanic community in Los Angeles do not maintain such above-the-board facilities, says Hancz. HALT members say that MacArthur Park, for example, is a hot spot for the sale of prescription drugs; they have seen drugs sold at swap meets and out of baby carriages, visibly on street corners next to people who sell fruit and snacks. They recently busted a pet store that was selling the drugs in unsanitary conditions, alongside live animals, including rabbits and birds.

At the Alameda Swap Meet, an industrial enclave southeast of downtown Los Angeles, booths display legal products -- herbal medicines and Mexican imports, t-shirts, electronics and plastic toys. But HALT members say they have confiscated illegal prescription drugs from several sellers here. In at least 20 busts in the last ten years at Alameda Swap Meet -- the last one was in Dec., 2008 -- the list of available products is long: antibiotics, birth control, medication for high blood pressure, cortico steriods and cortico steriod injections, unapproved medications for arthritis, and controlled substances including sleeping pills.

Fellows had discussions about the underlying stories, beyond law enforcement solutions, that could be a part of reports on illegal pescription drug sales. In immigrant communities, buying drugs from unlicensed sellers is not as shocking as it might be in mainstream America. Countries around the world, particularly those without functioning formal health care systems, have long traditions of community pharmacies and faith healers. In a situation where immigrant communities do not have access or are afraid to access health care, it's not surprising that they turn to black market networks they are comfortable with.

One fellow asked, if law enforcement is aware of the scale of the problem, why isn't more being done to solve it? It's a problem of politics and resources, says HALT member Sgt. Steve Opferman of the Los Angeles Country Sherrif's Department. The task force itself has nine members and is the only unit in Los Angeles County tasked with dealing with complaints about illegal prescription drug sales and unlicensed doctors. HALT members say that it is the only unit of its kind in the state. "There just aren't enough investigators to go around," Sgt. Opferman.