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PRESCRIPTION FOR AN EPIDEMIC

August 18, 1996

'There are two kinds of justice in this system. One for doctors, and one for everybody else.'

--Paul K. King

Former state narcotics agent

A review of 30 criminal cases by The Times shows that doctors, pharmacists and dentists who illegally dispense prescription drugs often receive light jail sentences, if any at all. Some serious offenders stay in practice. Here are a sample of cases:

* DR. HARVEY L. DANNIS: Federal authorities received the first complaints about Dannis in 1985, but it was not until nine years later that serious action was taken against the Anaheim physician. Even then, he kept his medical license. Records show that Dannis, who died last year, illegally issued steroids, tranquilizers and powerful painkillers to known addicts and convicted criminals--two of whom overdosed. After a 20-month state investigation, Dannis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was placed on probation. The medical board suspended his license for 60 days in 1994 and put him on seven years' professional probation.

* PHARMACIST NORMAN E. FOX: Although law enforcement cameras captured him stealing medicinal cocaine from the Chico hospital where he worked, Fox was never convicted of wrongdoing. Instead, he went into a drug diversion program, continuing to practice. In December 1994, five years after the thefts, the state pharmacy board finally disciplined Fox, placing him on two years' professional probation. Fox, who admitted stealing cocaine for almost two months, says he is rehabilitated and wants the pharmacy board to end his probation. Except for his cocaine problem, state authorities say his 16-year career has been unblemished. But state pharmacy board member Sandra K. Bauer says the case took too long and shows the flaws in the system. "What I have found," Bauer said, "is that if you have a professional license, it can be a ticket to immunity from criminal prosecution."

* DR. JAMES R. LUCHS: Writing eight to 10 fraudulent prescriptions a day at his dining room table, state agents say, Luchs became one of the most prolific dispensers of the painkiller Dilaudid in the state before his arrest in December 1988. Investigators alleged that the Compton physician had been trafficking drugs since 1982 and had not treated a legitimate patient for almost five years. Users and street dealers, paying $400 per prescription, requested drugs through his office manager who forwarded the orders to the doctor at his Seal Beach home. Luchs, then 51, pleaded guilty to a felony drug-trafficking charge in March 1989 and, in a rare occurrence for convicted physicians, spent 2 1/2 years in state prison--the average time served by incarcerated street dealers, many of whom sold less than the doctor.

* DR. JOSEPH N. GREGURICH: Authorities began investigating Gregurich's Santa Ana practice in the early 1990s after a Drug Enforcement Administration audit revealed he was the state's largest buyer of the painkiller Vicoden. Case records allege that Gregurich sold thousands of Vicoden and Tylenol with codeine pills in plain paper bags. One customer bought at least $10,000 of Vicoden from him within a year. Gregurich, then 48, pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor charges. His sentence was three years' probation and a $7,700 fine. In July 1995, the state Medical Board suspended his license for six months and placed him on seven years' professional probation.

* DENTIST FRANCIS J. ZAMBITO and PHARMACIST BERNARD KASTIGAR: In the early 1990s, Zambito and Kastigar, who both practiced in El Segundo, allegedly issued hundreds of fraudulent prescriptions for tightly controlled steroids and painkiller Percodan using the names of friends and family members, including their own children. The drugs were either sold on the street or used by Zambito, who was addicted to Percodan. It took the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement eight months to unravel the lengthy trail of prescription records. Kastigar and Zambito lost their professional licenses, but avoided jail. They each pleaded guilty to one felony count of prescription fraud in late 1993. The judge placed both men on three years' probation and fined them $15,000.

Sources: California Medical Board and state Board of Pharmacy records. Los Angeles County Superior and Municipal Court files.

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