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Storefront Drug Sales Targeted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juan Mendoza knew that the drugs he was selling in his family’s East Los Angeles minimarket were not meant to be sold in the United States.

But the products, which authorities said ranged from foot creams to antibiotics, were in great demand among his customers. Many of them were illegal immigrants, afraid to return to Mexico, where they would have been able to purchase those pharmaceuticals without a prescription in one of Tijuana’s many farmacias.

So Mendoza was stunned when members of a Los Angeles County task force, accompanied by a clutch of reporters, swept into his store two weeks ago, confiscating some of his inventory and arresting him on misdemeanor charges.

The county’s crackdown on such operations--which are part of what county officials say is a vast network of underground health care providers--has drawn fire from some in the Latino community. Protesters have phoned Spanish-language radio stations over what they see as unfair targeting of customers who have no other access to health care products.

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Far from backing off, however, the county is lobbying hard to extend its authority over businesses like Mendoza’s.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has waged a campaign against the storefront botanicas that sell prescription drugs illegally, has succeeded in persuading a state legislator to introduce emergency legislation to make selling the drugs a felony.

The legislation, authored by Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park), would also give the county the authority to shut down such businesses, rather than deferring to state regulators, who the county says are not aggressive enough.

Currently, Molina said, the county has so little authority that officials were unable to file charges after a highly publicized raid on a warehouse full of Mexican pharmaceuticals.

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“We discovered we had more control over a place that sold bad food than over a place that sells illegal drugs,” county health director Mark Finucane said Tuesday at a news conference on the pending legislation.

It is particularly important to grapple with the problem of illegal pharmacies now, Finucane said, because changes in the health care system are driving more and more patients to see their doctors less and seek their care outside of hospitals. He said two people had died within the last year as a result of improper treatment at clinics that sold drugs illegally in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

But reducing the reliance of Southern California’s immigrants on such facilities will take more than a law enforcement crackdown. Use of the botanicas “is very much a cultural thing” said Molina’s assistant chief deputy, Miguel Santana.

As a result, a backlash of sorts has developed in the East Los Angeles neighborhoods where Molina’s task force has arrested about 50 shopkeepers in the last six weeks.

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Customers have complained to Molina’s office that they have shopped--happily and safely--at some markets for 20 years or more, according to Santana.

And when the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion reported on the crackdown, the headline focused on the shutdown of a popular botanica, rather than on the notion that Mexican prescription drugs were the subject of a task force effort.

“Not only among Latinos, but in many other countries, people go to the pharmacist for drugs,” Santana said. In Mexico, however, over-the-counter drugs are sold by licensed pharmacists, not by shopkeepers.

That difference is what makes Los Angeles County’s underground pharmaceutical market so dangerous, Molina and others say. Some of the drugs--even powerful steroids and injectable contraceptives--are sold in butcher shops and shoe stores, as well as in minimarkets and unlicensed pharmacies.

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Such drugs can have unintended effects. A common form of injectable contraceptive, for example, can hasten the spread of breast cancer in women who have the beginnings of a tumor. Before a doctor would prescribe such a drug, he or she might order a mammogram, or perform other tests to make sure the woman does not have a malignant growth that could be affected by the drug.

Other drugs, like the topical penicillin that was confiscated from several stores, can cause death in patients who are allergic.

Mendoza, who was arrested July 14 at his East Los Angeles store, Mendoza Mini Market, said he takes pains to sell only drugs that in Mexico would be considered over-the-counter. He said he would not even talk to the black marketeers who sell medicinal narcotics and other drugs that require prescriptions even across the border.

But Greg Thompson, a pharmacist who is the director of the Los Angeles Regional Drug Information Center and who participated in the raid on Mendoza’s store, said that doesn’t eliminate the danger.

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“He didn’t have any codeine or anything like that,” Thompson said. “But he had plenty of antibiotics and other things.”

Mendoza, in an interview, denied selling antibiotics.

The county has embarked on an educational campaign, reaching out to Spanish-language news media and distributing fliers in English and Spanish that cite the dangers of taking prescription drugs without the oversight of a physician.

The county has also extended the hours of its walk-in clinic at the Roybal Comprehensive Health Center, and is encouraging residents who do not have medical insurance to go there for examinations and prescriptions.

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Still, reducing the reliance on botanicas in an age when legitimate medical care is hard to obtain--and even many American prescription drugs are becoming available over the counter--promises to be difficult.

“All the people say the same thing,” Mendoza said. “They rely more on Mexican products than American products. . . . My customers say, ‘I want this.’ ”


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