L.A. Takes On Prescription Drug Swaps Across the country, prescription drugs are sold over the counter at Latino swap meets and neighborhood stores. Los Angeles County has created a task force to inspect and bust these "botanicas."
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L.A. Takes On Prescription Drug Swaps

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L.A. Takes On Prescription Drug Swaps

L.A. Takes On Prescription Drug Swaps

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This is Day to Day from NPR. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Alex Chadwick. In many Latino communities around the country, people are buying prescription drugs without a prescription. They find them at swap meets or in store fronts. Local police often don't know about the problem, or don't know how to stop it. But in Los Angeles, a team of county health officers is working with law enforcement to do something. From member station KXJZ, Kelley Weiss reports.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLEY WEISS: It's a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are moving through the Crows Landing flea market in California's Central Valley. Cristina Correa is guiding me. She works for the California Medical Association Foundation. Her job is to raise awareness about the overuse of antibiotics. She spots a card table at one stand, openly displaying dozens of bottles of medication.

Ms. CRISTINA CORREA (AWARE Director, California Medical Association Foundation): There's tetracycline, there's a lot of creams at the table, there is amoxicillin, amphycillin (ph).

WEISS: Correa says displays like this one are common.

(Soundbite of music)

WEISS: As we walk down a crowded aisle we find 24 year old Armando Rivera (ph). Rivera says he doesn't have health insurance and gets medicine at a flea market when he needs it.

Mr. ARMANDO RIVERA: My mom she's, you know, as soon as I get a sore throat, so we got to go to the flea market and get some penicillin.

WEISS: Cristina Correa says it's part of the culture for many recent Latino immigrants to get prescription drugs this way. Antibiotics are a popular choice because, in countries like Mexico, for example, you can just buy them over the counter. Dean Blumberg is an infectious disease specialist at UC Davis Medical Center. He says this is a big problem, because misusing antibiotics can make it harder to fight off subsequent infections.

Dr. DEAN BLUMBERG (Infectious Disease Specialist, UC Davis Medical Center): What we've seen in the past is a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and then these bacteria end up causing severe infections, pneumonia, meningitis and other very severe infections that don't respond to first line treatment.

WEISS: The problem is, it's hard to track these illegal sales. That's what John Hirai says. He works with the Medical Board of California and goes after people who practice medicine without a license.

Mr. JOHN HIRAI (Medical Board of California): I think probably the biggest thing is not knowing how much more is out there, you know, and being able to really, you know, track that, since it is so underground.

WEISS: Still, that challenge hasn't stopped Los Angeles County. It put together a group of cops and health officers to not only track the sales, but stop them. The Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force, or HALT, started about 10 years ago, when two children in Orange County died after getting prescription drugs from an unlicensed provider. And, as far as HALT knows, it's the only task force like it in the country.

Today, HALT is hitting five locations in south central L.A. L.A. Police Officer, Juan Gomez (ph), bought prescription drugs undercover in botanicas and general stores in this Latino neighborhood. Now he has search warrants and the team is seizing the pharmaceuticals.

(Soundbite of store)

WEISS: At this general store, or tienda, the owner sells groceries, cigarettes and party favors. HALT pharmacist; Daniel Hancz; also finds antibiotics and pain relievers.

Mr. DANIEL HANCZ (HALT Pharmacist): And this is for worms, worm infections. We also found some urinary antibiotics, and then another product called Intestomesina (ph) which is a combination antibiotic and has chloral phenacolin (ph) in it, which was banned in the U.S. in the oral formulation.

WEISS: Hancz says it's common to find injectable steroids or penicillin at these places as well, because they're in high demand. He says many of these drugs haven't been approved for sale in the U.S. They're usually brought in from Latin America and some, he says, are counterfeit. That means, at best, the drug could be just a placebo, at worst it could contain harmful ingredients.

The task force comes away with only a few boxes full of seized pharmaceuticals today. Health Officers Eric Aguilar and Daniel Hancz hope it's a sign the busts are working. They say drugs are much harder to find these days.

Mr. HANCZ: But, in the past, years ago, it was on its way, and we'd come out of businesses with, you know, truck loads.

WEISS: Still, they suspect the decline may be due to the sales being pushed further underground. Dr. Dean Blumberg says this type of enforcement isn't enough. He says physicians need to warn patients about the dangers of illegally sold prescription drugs.

Dr. BLUMBERG: If people have a health care provider that they trust and that they respect, and they hear it from them, that's going to have the most impact in terms of education.

Ms. WEISS: Blumberg recognizes it's not always that simple and that access to healthcare plays a role here. Some immigrants, he says, can't afford health insurance. Others are here illegally, and are scared to go to the doctor. So, he says, there should be more outreach, to give them better options than the neighborhood tienda, or weekend swap meet. For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss.

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