Reporting on the black market with cultural sensitivity and context
Kelley Weiss, a health care reporter at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, is one of this year's California Broadcast fellows. For her report, L.A. Takes On Prescription Drug Swaps, she reported on a thriving black market for prescription drugs from abroad and accompanied a team from the multi-department Health Authority Law Enforcement (HALT) Task Force to collect illegal pharmaceuticals.
"I decided early on that this story was not going to be about the immigration debate," Weiss says. "This was going to be a health care story."
Daniel Hancz is a pharmacist and investigator with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and part of the the multi-department HALT Task Force. Black market drugs and illegal clinics can be dangerous to both patients and society at large, he says. But patients still use them because they might fear for their immigration status, worry about costs, look for products that they are familiar with, or feel that the health care system does not address their cultural needs.
Weiss says it was really important in her story to make clear to community sources that she was not trying to vilify people who buy and use illegal prescription drugs. She told sources that she just wanted to understand the issue. She went to the swap meets first, visiting people on ground before calling officials.
"Once I called the sheriff's department, the dynamic changed," Weiss says. Officials wanted to raid and Weiss said she had to be very honest with her community sources that she could not promise that authorities would not get involved.
The best she could do was be culturally sensitive and provide context. "To do a story in a meaningful way, you have to say why," Weiss says. "Why are people doing this?"
The story is intertwined, she says, with cuts to health care problems in the state and country. Dental and vision benefits for Medi-Cal patients, for example, will be cut come July, which is another reason patients may visit unlicensed practitioners for their health care.
Quantifying the extent of the problem was very difficult because no one was tracking it, says Weiss. But the HALT task force, since 200, has "been responsible for 450 investigations, 300 arrests, confiscation of over $4.5 million worth of pharmaceuticals, closure of 60 businesses, and saved the state of California approximately $28 million per year in potential Medi-Cal fraud," according to its website. Practicing medicine without a license -- which includes making diagnoses and injecting drugs -- is a felony, as is selling scheduled addicitive substances, such as Vicondin. Selling non-scheduled prescription drugs without a license is a misdemeanor.
Antibiotics and pain killers are among the most common drugs sold on the black market. Counterfeit drugs, often manufactured in India and China, are also common. Medications for diabetes and high blood pressure are less common.
"The drugs we don't see is frankly the ones that a lot of people need," says Hancz.
The California Broadcast Fellows will be taking a field trip this afternoon with HALT members to visit black market hot spots and legal local sources of medications catered to minority communities.