Counterfeit pharmaceuticals manufacturers and dealers are murderers, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna during a press conference Wednesday morning in downtown Los Angeles in which the sheriff pledged to aggressively pursue those responsible for distributing the dangerous pills that are often laced with fentanyl.
Luna and representatives from Homeland Security, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, the Los Angeles Crime Stoppers and the Los Angeles Police Department spoke about the dangers of counterfeit pharmaceuticals at the Hall of Justice before a room full of media, trying to spread what they’re calling an urgent message to the community: that they’re taking this matter very seriously and are attacking it head-on.
Joining Luna in the message were actor Danny Trejo, who’s become the face of the “Bad Meds Kill Real People” campaign in a new public service announcement, and Matt Capelouto, whose 20-year-old daughter died from counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
“As we’re educating the public about what to do and what not to do,” Luna said, “I give a warning to everybody who’s out there selling narcotics, that if you’re selling, we at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — and other agencies here that I’m surrounded by — we’re coming after you. And if somebody dies because you’re selling pills or whatever other poison you’re selling, you’re going to go to prison just like you probably murdered somebody.”
Luna said that he and others at the news conference on Wednesday have a simple goal: They want to save lives.
“It is absolutely time for a change to affect this issue and to protect the most vulnerable, including our youth,” he said in his opening remarks. “We must absolutely come together as we have here. We will utilize three pillars firmly rooted in collaboration, which is education, awareness and enforcement.”
Luna and others discussed the growing problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals laced with potentially deadly doses of fentanyl. What’s more, the ability to buy pain medication or antibiotics, for example, at cheaper prices on the street, at flea markets and swap meets, online and on social media — which will deliver these drugs to your door — has amplified the problem.
“We’re in a crisis,” Trejo told the room of journalists. “There’s a surprise in every pill, and the surprise might be death.”
Trejo, who’s known for his roles in movies like “Machete” and “From Dusk Till Dawn,” who’s also the name behind the Trejo’s Tacos eateries, is lending his name and voice to spread the word about the seriousness of the matter.
Matt Capelouto, whose daughter, Alexandra Capelouto, died from a counterfeit pharmaceutical pill, spoke about how people are being deceived, particularly when consuming “counterfeit pills pressed to mimic legitimate pharmaceutical medications.”
“As a teenager, Alex was diagnosed with massive depressive disorder,” he said. “With her depression came severe anxiety and insomnia. For those who don’t understand clinical depression, I urge you not to judge but rather be thankful you’ve not been affected. As with physical pain, people suffering from depression will seek relief. This relief is often sought under duress, and those suffering don’t always make cognitive rational decisions.”
On Dec. 22, 2019, Capelouto said his daughter purchased what she believed to be the prescription painkiller oxycodone. She took half a pill, he said, before going to bed, and was killed within minutes.
“Alex had ingested a counterfeit oxycodone pill made with a lethal dose of fentanyl,” Capelouto continued. “I can assure you of two things: Alex was seeking relief, not death. And a drug dealer didn’t give a damn if she died.”
Eddy Wang, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations, told the media on Wednesday that counterfeiting is no longer a low-risk, high-reward endeavor in Southern California.
“That’s because HSI, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and our other law enforcement partners, have combined our efforts to shift that paradigm,” he said. “We are committed to use every available tool possible to hold counterfeiters and those that traffic and fake pills and medications accountable.”
In the last six months, he continued, the collaboration of the departments that he mentioned recovered and removed “over 10,000 items from the street” throughout the county and city of Los Angeles.
“According to recent articles published by The Guardian,” Wang added, “an estimated 250 children die annually due to counterfeit antibiotics and medicines. With the COVID pandemic, the emergence of RSV, and the flu season upon us, we are seeing an increase in counterfeit medications and medicines being sold in Hispanic communities across the city and county of Los Angeles. The most prevalent counterfeit medicines that are being sold are antibiotics and pain medicines.”
Al Carter, the executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, said his agency has been working since the early 2000s to address internet pharmacies that are operating illegally.
“This campaign, Safe.Pharmacy, list out pharmacies that are operating illegally,” he said. “We have over 40,000 pharmacies listed on this website today, and we add another 200 pharmacies every week. Our team is working tirelessly to try and address this and to try and expose these pharmacies on a daily basis.”
Libby Baney of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies said at the Wednesday conference that one of the factors in the growing problem of people getting their hands on counterfeit medicines is the affordability.
“We find Americans often go onto the internet for reasons of cost and convenience,” she said. “When you’re looking for medicine, and you can’t afford it, the internet has sadly become the outlet valve, and counterfeiters know that and they take advantage of Americans who are looking for medicines that they can’t afford.”
She advised people to seek out safe medicines, and added that there are affordable options.
“You can go to Partnership for Prescription Assistance,” she said. “Many manufacturers have prescription assistance programs, where they try to create access channels for people that can’t afford their medicines. There’s also actually safe verified online pharmacies that provide drugs at a discount.”
She said that the use of discount cards and discount programs like GoodRX provide medications that are FDA approved, safe and effective, but at a lower cost.
“I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands of parents across this nation, whose child suffered the same fate as mine,” Capelouto said, referring to his daughter. “And I can tell you this: the majority of young people are acquiring this through social media, and specifically, the social media platform Snapchat. You can have death pills delivered to your door as easy as ordering a pizza.”
Those who would like to partner to prevent or report crime can contact the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station at 661-260-4000. If you prefer to remain anonymous, call L.A. Crime Stoppers at 800-222-TIPS (8477), use your smartphone by downloading the P3 mobile app on Google play or the App Store, or go LACrimeStoppers.org.