"Importation" of Prescription Drugs

SEPTEMBER 01, 2004
Cmdr John Burke

Attempting to identify the diversion of prescription drugs in the United States is not always an easy task. Drug diversion is thought of as a product of "doctor shoppers," forged and altered prescriptions, theft from health facilities, and various other scams perpetrated by addicts and those trafficking in pharmaceuticals.

Importing prescription drugs, primarily from our northern neighbor, Canada, has become a hot item in the news, and likely a political issue on a national scale. Senior citizens, in particular, are understandably trying to keep their prescription drug costs to a minimum as they try to exist on fixed incomes.

Another significant method of importation that involves our southern neighbor, Mexico, is likely providing a significant source of drug diversion in our country. In January 2004, our drug task force arrested a man in possession of over 33,000 alprazolam tablets that were not for distribution in the United States. They are 1-mg strength, look very similar to the "purple footballs" that are abused in our country, and are worth about $3 apiece on the street.

In June of this year, we were finally able to track the source of these drugs to the Mexican border near Nuevo Laredo. A purchase was set up with the assistance of Texas authorities, and the undercover officer purchased 93,060 of the pills from a purported Mexican pharmacist, who turned out to only be known as a pharmacist because of his ability to distribute large amounts of prescription drugs illegally!

This man, along with his wife and their 5-year-old son, also brought along 184 lb of marijuana to add to the transaction, which took place about 30 miles south of Austin, Tex. The deal took place in a very modest converted mobile home, the residence of a relative of the wife. All 3 individuals were arrested after the drugs were viewed by the undercover officer, and the $100,000+ deal was agreed upon.

These transactions between the Mexican couple and 2 individuals from our area in southwest Ohio have been going on for over 3 years. One individual had to quit a regular job in order to make the trip from Ohio to southern Texas 2 to 4 times a month. Each time in the first 2 years, at least 100,000 alprazolam were purchased during the visits, and 1 time, 300,000 dosage units of the pill were brought back to our area.

Needless to say, millions of dosage units of illegal alprazolam were distributed in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky that had nothing to do with local drug diverters or health professionals. The pills were bought from the Mexican couple for about $.70 each, and immediately dispersed to several dealers for $1 per pill. This means a $30,000 quick profit on every 100,000 pills brought back to Ohio. The marijuana profit is likely 3 to 4 times that of the alprazolam.

We are gratified when we can eliminate a source of this size that was bringing these pills into our jurisdiction. This is only 1 dealer in our area, however, and how many more people were the Mexican couple providing with alprazolam? The manufacturer of the alprazolam has been working with us and federal officials in attempting to plug up the ultimate foreign source of the drugs.

When you consider this form of drug diversion, and couple it with the millions of illegal doses that are being distributed via the Internet, it becomes clear that this problem is not just made up of local drug seekers. It is a national and international problem of very large proportions, and needs the continued cooperation of law enforcement, regulators, and health professionals.

John Burke, director of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 32-year veteran of law enforcement. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at burke@choice.net, via the Web site www.rxdiversion.com, or by phone at 513-336-0070.