State officials have closed a pharmacy in the Crenshaw District that they say was the site of a million-dollar illegal trade in codeine, a generally innocuous drug often abused by addicts to produce a heroin-like high.
Marshall Berger, owner of Mission Pharmacy on West Adams Boulevard near La Brea Boulevard Avenue, agreed to the closure after an investigation by the state pharmacy board, a spokesman said.
His druggist's license was suspended for 300 days by the board, which also ordered him to pay $20,000 to cover the costs of the investigation, the spokesman said. An assistant lost his license for 150 days. The penalties were imposed as part of a settlement negotiated by the state attorney general's office before the matter came up for an administrative hearing.
In a separate action, William Vasak, a Santa Monica pharmacist, has been found guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court on four counts of a felony charge of furnishing a controlled substance. The sales involved smaller amounts of codeine-based cough syrup.
State drug enforcement agents said the syrups were of a type often abused by addicts and that a 16-ounce bottle could be resold illegally for several hundred dollars.
Vasak was sentenced this month to three years probation. His license will be suspended for six months and the Montana Avenue Pharmacy, which he operates, will be closed for at least two months as of May 1.
"We expect this will have an impact on other pharmacists and lead them to realize they are being monitored," said Deputy Atty. Gen. William L. Carter. "In both cases they will have learned their lesson and not get into this kind of trouble again."
While the Santa Monica case came to the attention of the authorities through a buyer who revealed the illegal drug sales to a sheriff's deputy, Mission Pharmacy has been the subject of many complaints from nearby residents and businesses, police said.
"We got complaints on a daily basis," said Officer Jim Ross. "It was very open what they did down there." Users would buy and sell drugs illegally on the sidewalk outside the drugstore and in the nearby residential streets, he said.
Most of the patrons came from other parts of the city, Ross said.
A pharmacy board audit disclosed that Mission sold more than 1 million codeine tablets a year for three years, a figure far in excess of the quantity of codeine generally sold at neighborhood drugstores.
Prescriptions routinely filled there were forged, significantly irregular or not for legitimate medical purposes, a board spokesman said.
Combined with gluthethimide, a prescription sedative also known as Doriden, one grain of codeine can produce an effect much like that of heroin.
Safer Than Heroin
The combination, known among users by various terms including "loads," "doors" and "fours," is considered safer than heroin bought on the street because it is made up of pharmacy-grade ingredients.
It is also more readily available, at least to those who know doctors and pharmacists willing to provide the makings.
But it can also be dangerous, and the state pharmacy board said "loads" taken alone or with other drugs can be fatal.
"The life expectancy of people who regularly use these substances is about two years," Carter said.
A state pharmacy board inspector who asked not to be identified said illicit entrepreneurs use a variety of stratagems to build large stockpiles of codeine and other legal drugs that are then resold illegally at a high profit.
The techniques include hiring fake patients to buy one or another of the ingredients that make up loads, since most pharmacists will not sell codeine and Doriden to the same person.
Others know the names of doctors who are willing to prescribe such drugs despite the danger of professional disciplinary action for prescribing controlled substances for non-medical use.
In many cases, the drugs were paid for under the state's Medi-Cal health program.
"There's so much money in this, that for some doctors it's worth it for them to engage in his kind of practice, and it takes quite a while before they're noticed and caught, just as it is with a pharmacy," the inspector said. "Unless a pharmacist is quite blatant, it doesn't come to our notice."
A tablet of codeine that costs a pharmacist 25 cents may ultimately be sold for $5, he said.
In the Santa Monica case, violations were on a smaller scale than at Mission Pharmacy.
"They (buyers) had to personally know him to get these favors," state drug agent Mike Gerowicz said.
Berger's attorney declined comment. Elliot Stanford, Vasak's attorney, said, "It's not going to be appropriate for him to give his side of this story. He's a very respected young man as far as the community in Santa Monica is concerned."
Testimony at the one-day trial indicated that the informant bought codeine-rich cough syrup at the Montana Avenue pharmacy at least 30 times without proper prescriptions, paying $100 a bottle or more.
In a statement submitted before his sentencing, Vasak said he did not know the drug was abused by heroin addicts. He said he was set up by state drug agents and that he did not consider himself a criminal.
But his probation report said, "Defendant is a well-established pharmacist whose desire to make a profit overcame his sense of responsibility to his profession and good judgment."