Over the Counter, Under the Radar 

Some local Mexican markets sell more than aspirin and Tylenol without a doctor's prescription. It's flourishing. But it's illegal.

Standing by the front counter of his store on 23rd Street in Richmond, La Raza Market owner Adel Mohssen insists he had no idea it was a misdemeanor to sell Viagra or other imported Mexican drugs without a pharmaceutical license. Mohssen says he wasn't doing anything differently than any of the neighborhood's other corner stores, most of which have sold the stuff for years. "If I had known it wasn't right, I wouldn't have had it right out in the open," Mohssen says, with a shrug and a smile. "I would have kept it under the counter."

Last spring, Contra Costa County health officials confiscated supplies of Viagra, painkillers, birth-control pills, syringes, antibiotics, and Retin-A wrinkle cream, all of which were being sold over the counter at La Raza #1 and a sister store on nearby Macdonald Avenue. It wasn't like Mohssen was trying to hide the stuff. The imported drugs were right next to the Tylenol and Visine -- on display for everyone to see. Around the same time, investigators for the food and drug branch of the state Department of Health Services conducted a sweep of nine other Mexican mercados around Contra Costa County. According to county health inspector Joe Doser and Deputy District Attorney Steven Bolen, they found prescription drugs being sold illegally at Latino Market in Concord, Mis Amigos in Bay Point, and two stores in West County.

The district attorney decided to believe Mohssen and the other merchants -- all of whom claimed ignorance of the law -- and not file criminal charges. "The fact that it was right next to the aspirin adds to their story that they had no idea it was illegal," says Bolen.

The discovery of prescription drugs from Mexico being peddled like aspirin was a first for Contra Costa law enforcement. While standing at the front counter waiting to talk to Mohssen, Doser began scanning all the different prescription drugs for sale right in front of him. "I said, 'Oh man, don't tell me it's here,'" says Doser, who'd heard about Los Angeles' problems with illegal prescription drug sales.

As the example indicates, this black market for Mexican prescription drugs is not a new problem for authorities in other parts of the state -- especially those closer to the border. Nor is it always harmless. Tragedy struck in 1999 when a toddler died after being treated with an injection of penicillin at a Tustin, California, gift shop with a back-room clinic.

But the extra scrutiny from law enforcement hasn't put a stop to over-the-counter sales of Mexican medicines in Los Angeles or even here in the East Bay. In some cases, merchants are simply being more discreet and keep the meds hidden. And in other cases, the drugs are sold as openly as ever.

It's mid-morning on a Thursday in Berkeley's trendy Fourth Street shopping district. But the area attracts more than yuppies with disposable cash. About twenty Latino immigrant day laborers are scattered near the corner of Hearst Street waiting for work.

A quick survey shows that many know where they can easily buy antibiotics and other drugs without a note from the doctor. A man named Jose with a scruffy beard and baseball cap says he knows of places in Oakland's Fruitvale District where he can buy meds for his asthma with no questions asked. "I don't have health insurance," Jose explains in Spanish. "I got no choice."

Lack of health insurance is a common reason why immigrants go to a mercado as opposed to a clinic. But there are other reasons as well, says a young man in his twenties from Jalisco who says in Spanish that his name is "Juan" and then laughs: "The hospital is far away and it takes a long time. You've got to wait for all the people who are there ahead of you. You've got to give information -- your Social Security number, your identification. And then the doctor finally comes and he gives you," he says, pausing and rolling his eyes, "Tylenol."

It's a lot easier, Juan notes, to simply "remember what my mother used to give me" when he was sick and buy it at a Mexican market. Before he came here, Juan says he lived near Tracy and could also buy medicines there without a prescription. In Mexico, more drugs are available without a prescription.

Among the most popular drugs is called Terramicina, an oxytetracycline antibiotic made by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The drug company makes ointment and pill versions of the drug. While it's legal to sell the ointment over the counter, it's illegal to sell the pill version without a license or buy it without a prescription, according to Ray Wilson, a scientist for the state Department of Health Services' food and drug branch.

But it didn't take long to find the pills over-the-counter in Oakland's Fruitvale district. The second store visited, Chapala Market on International Boulevard, kept 24-pill boxes of the drug behind a locked glass cabinet next to the produce section. A reporter bought a box for $8.29 plus tax without a prescription. The box contained no usage instructions or health warnings, even though pharmacists say pregnant women shouldn't take the drug.

A more common complication of such drug use typically comes from using the wrong kind of drug to treat an ailment, notes Dr. Gustavo Estrella, a physician at Clinica de la Raza in Pittsburg. "They take the medication, they don't take it for the appropriate amount of time, they take it inappropriately -- meaning that they take it for a viral infection when the antibiotic is for a bacterial infection. And that leads to resistance toward that particular antibiotic."

The drugs are often American-manufactured pharmaceuticals exported to Mexico and then brought back across the border by smugglers. Estrella says drugs such as penicillin are infinitely cheaper in Mexico and can be resold in the United States by black marketeers at a 300 to 400 percent markup.

Sometimes the drugs have been banned in the United States but remain popular in Mexico. One example is Dipyrone, which is sometimes called "the Mexican aspirin," according to Daniel Hancz, a pharmacist who advises a Southern California task force formed to combat the Mexican pharmaceutical black market. In August, the state Department of Health Services issued a warning about Dipyrone, a toxic painkiller and anti-inflammatory banned in the United States 25 years ago for causing a deadly blood disease. State health officials say they had received reports during the previous year of sales of Dipyrone in various counties including Alameda and Contra Costa.

What often remains a mystery is where these markets are buying the drugs. Mohssen says he used to get his supply from a wholesaler in Southern California, which has since "disappeared." Investigators also heard that a distributor based in Oakland they only knew as "Oscar" supplied local stores. Doser says they never found Oscar.

Deputy District Attorney Bolen cautions that his office may not be so forgiving in the future with stores caught selling illegal prescription drugs. Last month the county health department sent out 3,500 fliers to merchants and others, telling them that only licensed pharmacies can sell prescription drugs. "We've put everyone on notice," Bolen says. "If we do find drugs being sold unlawfully in the future, we'll pursue criminal prosecution."

It's a misdemeanor to sell prescription drugs without a pharmaceutical license. A bill to make it a felony, proposed earlier this year by Orange County Assemblyman Ken Maddox, died in committee. Maddox plans to reintroduce the bill next year.

Meanwhile, there are already indications that stores in Contra Costa County are simply being more discreet now, something Los Angeles merchants did after law enforcement began cracking down on their operations.

Ali Moh, a clerk at La Raza Market, says his old customers are still finding places to buy their medicines in the area. "One lady, last time she come asking me for medicine and I tell her I don't have any, you know what I mean? She said, 'Why you no sell it no more?' I said, 'I can't sell it, I don't have any license for it.'"

The next day she came back to the store and told Moh she found what she was looking for at another Mexican market in Richmond.

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