Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A crackdown on illegal pharmaceuticals prompts warnings to consumers

Seized illegal pharmaceuticals on display at the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, Oct. 2, 2014.
Seized illegal pharmaceuticals on display at the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, Oct. 2, 2014.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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Law enforcement officials in Los Angeles are cracking down on black market pharmaceutical sales, prosecuting sellers and warning the public to steer clear of illicit medicines.

The Los Angeles City Attorney's office announced Thursday that it has filed criminal charges in several recent cases involving illegal pharmaceuticals, which vary from antibiotics to pain medicines to birth control pills. These unregulated drugs can found for sale at swap meets, even at mom-and-pop stores.

"It's very important that those who would dispense these medications know that we are coming after them, and we will vigorously prosecute them," said City Attorney Mike Feuer. "And it's important for us to educate the community about stopping the demand altogether for these medications, and that there are other ways to get these medications than relying on a swap meet or a neighborhood store."

Additional cases are expected to be filed next week.

Officials said immigrants are most at risk for health threats posed by under-the-table drugs. The perceived low cost  is one factor, as is insufficient access to medical care. But according to L.A. County public health officer Erick Aguilar, it's also a matter of buying habits.

Medications are sold less formally in parts of Latin America and Asia, officials said, and this can make some immigrants easy targets for illegal pharmaceutical sellers.

"It's convenience, it's economics," Aguilar said. "They think it's cheaper, they think they are saving money. Some of it is cultural, they are familiar with the product and that is how they purchase it back home."

One goal of the crackdown is to spread the word that it's dangerous to consume these medications, some of which aren't for sale in the United States. Many illegal pharmaceuticals confiscated by officials come from places like India, China or Central America, Aguilar said; some bear non-English labels, lack warnings or expiration dates, or are not in their original packaging. Some of these medicines might be tainted, he said, or stored in less-than-sanitary conditions.

While the crackdown isn't in response to a particular incident, Aguilar said consumers have died in the past. He said the deaths of two children years ago from taking illegal pharmaceuticals prompted the creation in the late 1990s of a multi-agency task force that continues to targets distributors and sellers.

Officials are encouraging consumers who encounter suspicious pharmaceutical sales to report them to authorities.