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Legislator Goes After Illegal Sales of Medicine

Drugs: Reports of smuggled pharmaceuticals from Mexico implicated in deaths and other serious side effects prompt effort to make violations a felony.

May 26, 1999|H.G. REZA and TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Charging that "children are dying and people are being injured," a state lawmaker said he will introduce a bill next year that would make it a felony to illegally sell pharmaceuticals in California.

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park) said the sale of drugs from Mexico in back-room clinics here is a "critical issue" that also needs to be addressed with the Mexican government.

Officials in Mexico "need to understand that it's not just [harming] American citizens, but Mexican nationals as well," said Gallegos, who wrote legislation last year that led to the creation of county task forces to crack down on the sale of the drugs.

Gallegos' comments follow a three-day Times series this week detailing how drugs that have been banned or tightly restricted in the United States because of severe side effects are being sold out of back-room clinics. Some doctors believe a banned painkiller called dipyrone has caused the deaths of at least four children in California and Texas.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Tuesday she wants to help toughen the penalties. "The price to pay isn't heavy enough yet to prevent those things," she said.

"I have to believe there are others out there" who have gotten ill or died after taking the drugs, she said. "These medications are very, very heavy-duty."

The state, she said, must make "these penalties tough enough to defer folks."

Most of those who are now arrested for selling medicines from Mexico are charged with misdemeanors and serve less than three months in jail.

Gallegos, backed by Molina, attempted to push through a bill last year making such sales a felony, but it was derailed by Senate leaders who said they would allow no new bills to pass that would create nonviolent felonies.

"Political realities" caused the punishment to be changed to a misdemeanor, Gallegos said.

Gallegos' measure toughened up the penalty by increasing fines, allowing county officials to close a business after an owner's second conviction and preventing the owner from opening a new business in the county. But officials with Los Angeles County's task force say such penalties have fallen short.

Task force head Sachi Hamai, chief of the county Department of Health Services' inspection and audit division, said a misdemeanor is appropriate for mom-and-pop operations ignorant of laws prohibiting the sale of the drugs.

But, she said, "the people that continue to do it are the ones that are in it for the profit." For those people, "a misdemeanor isn't enough."

Since May 1998, the task force has conducted 169 investigations and made 71 arrests. Of those, 42 people have been charged with misdemeanors and 29 with felonies. All of the 10 convictions thus far have been for misdemeanors.

Usually, felony charges are levied only when controlled drugs, such as those with codeine or a narcotic base, are sold to undercover agents. When someone is caught selling antibiotics, birth control medicines, blood pressure medication or other such drugs, they are usually prosecuted on misdemeanor charges.

Task force member Don Ashton said the Legislature "didn't want people convicted of selling pharmaceuticals to go to prison for life if it was their third strike [third felony conviction]. . . . My personal view is that everything should be a felony."

Gallegos said he will likely propose that the crime be a "wobbler," allowing a judge to decide whether it should be a misdemeanor or a felony and to exempt it from three-strikes laws. He said he plans to meet with Gov. Gray Davis to map out why such a penalty is necessary.

John Miller, staff director of the state Senate's Health and Human Services Committee, said he hesitated to punish those who tried to fill a need in the Latino immigrant community by providing some form of health services to those alienated from the U.S. system.

Miller said he and his boss, Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), favored providing a network of more culturally appropriate, geographically accessible clinics.

But for those who "consciously sell substandard or dangerous products, the penalties need to be substantially increased," Miller said.

Rand Martin, chief of staff for Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) head of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said upping the crime to a felony will be a very tough sell but "the senator is always open to arguments."

"An argument could be made that [selling dangerous drugs] is as close to violent as you could come without being violent," he said.

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