IMPORTED DRUGS: Latinos Unaware of Lethal Side Effects
In a series of articles investigating the underground prescription drug trade thriving in Southern California and Texas, the Los Angeles Times reports that smugglers obtain the drugs from back-alley pharmacies and swap meets in Mexico and sneak them across the border with relative ease to sell to Latino immigrants who are unaware of the drugs' potentially lethal side effects, frequently resulting in costly inpatient recovery care. A Times investigation, prompted by the deaths of two Orange County infants following care from illegal providers, reveals that the most favored drugs -- "[m]edications banned or highly restricted in the United States because of severe, and sometimes fatal, side effects" -- include dipyrone, a drug withdrawn in 22 countries because of its link to fatal blood diseases; chloramphenicol, a highly toxic antibiotic used by doctors only as a "last resort," and Artidol, an arthritis medication that can weaken bones and shut down the adrenal gland. The Times notes that the drugs are legal in Mexico, where they come with little warning about possible side-effects. Pharmaceutical companies defend the practice of marketing medications that have been banned in some counties in others, calling the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "hyper-vigilant" and saying that fears over some drugs' safety have been exaggerated (Weber, 5/23).
Efforts to stem the tide of dangerous drugs across the border have been thwarted by a lack of consistent guidelines for custom officials to follow and the emphasis on blocking illicit drugs, the Los Angeles Times reports. "If we had a system that was rigid and crystal clear it would be much easier to enforce," said the FDA's Michael Friedman. Currently, customs rules concerning imported drugs differ from FDA regulations, both of which differ from a congressional mandate prohibiting the transfer of more than "50 dosage units without a prescription." Punishment is typically erratic and "few people are ever arrested for transporting illegal prescription drugs into the United States," the Times reports. Meanwhile, Mexican doctors and hustlers team up to boost sales -- offering to disguise drugs in aspirin bottles and store them for incremental transport and suggesting methods that are "smarter than the customs inspectors" (Reza, 5/24).