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San Diego's US Attorney Going After Pharma Cartels

October 4, 2012 1:02 p.m.


Laura Duffy, US Attorney, San Diego

Sherrie Rubin, Hope Foundation Director



Related Story: San Diego's US Attorney Going After Prescription Drugs From Mexican Cartels


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.




CAVANAUGH: Recently we heard that prescription drugs continue to be the No. 1 accidental cause of death in San Diego County. Law enforcement has targeted prescription drug abuse for several year, even establishing an oxy-task force aimed at the abuse of OxyContin. Now a task force is underway to make teens aware of the dangers of chill-pills and Pharma parties. The root of the problem moves from the family medicine cabinet into the hands of drug cartels. My guests, Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney here in San Diego, welcome to the program.

DUFFY: Thank you, Maureen. It's good to be here. 

CAVANAUGH: And Sherrie Ruben, who is taking part in the wake up anti-drug campaign in San Diego high schools. Her son Aaron was left paralyzed by the abuse of prescription drugs. Thanks so much for coming in. 

RUBEN: Thank you for having us. 

CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you. Tell us the story of how Aaron was hurt by these drugs. 

RUBEN: Well, Aaron overdosed on OxyContin in 2005. It was the beginning of an epidemic that we didn't know was arriving here in San Diego, and throughout the nation. He overdosed at a friend's house. The family saw him on the couch, he was blue and nonresponsive. In the mother's own words she beat on his chest, she threw ice on him from the freezer, they used my son's cellphone to call the pharmacy in Tijuana where the drugs were purchased. Then they called an EMT who said call 911. They still did not call 911. They assumed that Aaron was dead, and they didn't want his body in their home, so the father and son dragged him to the car and brought him to the local hospital, and when they were approached by the attendant physician and asked why is he like this, is he diabetic, did he have a head injury? They said I'm sorry, we have no idea. Aaron was in a coma for 3.5 months. When we arrived at the hospital, they told us I'm sorry, you're going to lose your son today. We were planning his funeral, and I just didn't give up the hope on Aaron. And miarculously, 3.5 weeks later, he started opening his eyes. He is a survivor. He did not come out unscathed. He is a quadriplegic, he cannot speak. He understands everything. He uses his hands and his fingers, one for yes, and two for no, to answer questions. And we have taken Aaron's story. He's very dangerous to go out and share this message of the abuse and misuse of what these prescriptions pills can do to an individual, tragically alter your life, and sadly far too many end up in death. 

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for sharing that story with us. Is this the story and the message that you bring to high schools in San Diego and wherever else you travel to with Aaron to basically both of you to be at these events, to share this episode in your lives? 

RUBEN: Yes. We do share this message. We also share other messages from other organizations, such as the partnership, wake up, the DEA, and all of the other fabulous collaborative efforts here in San Diego and abroad that we are honored to be part of to wake up our nation to this epidemic, and educate families, individuals, law enforcement, doctors, about how the youth abuse and misuse these drugs. Unknowingly. So education. Our message is to share without shame and to educate without blame. And Aaron blames no one except for the choice that he made, which was an uneducated choice because he had no idea what these pills could do to him. Rightfully so, there's a lot of changes that need to be made regarding prescription pills. We focus on just the small, which I -- the small part, which actually let me restate, a large part, I believe is educating what we can do today, right now, to help hopefully in that room when we speak save one individual from going down this tragic path. 

CAVANAUGH: Let me go to U.S. attorney Laura Duffy for a larger picture of what's happening here in San Diego. What do we know about the use of prescription drugs by young people here in San Diego? 

DUFFY: Well, in San Diego, like in most major cities across the United States, prescription drug abuse is the biggest drug problem that we're dealing with today. We have the recreational use of prescription drugs mostly the very powerful and highly addictive pain killers like Oxycodone, and Hydrocodone, surpassing the use of heroin, cocaine, and hallucinogens combined. We are seeing numbers increase as far as overdoses. Over the last five years, overdoses in San Diego have increased by 26%. The number of cases that are coming in and being presented to emergency room doctors has increased by 64%. So we know that we have a pharmaceutical abuse problem in San Diego. What we need to do is what Sherrie just said. This is not a problem that law enforcement is going to be able to address by producing our way out of this. This is a problem that is prevalent throughout every corner of this community. It is not a poor kid's problem, a gang kid's problem, a rich kid's problem. It spans across every community in the city. It is a problem we need to focus prevention on, education on, treatment on in addition to the enforcement. As we face this exploding epidemic, parents need to be aware of the fact that their family medicine cabinets and the Internet are really today's backstreet drug dealers. 

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, you mentioned the fact that this is a bigger problem now than even the street drugs that we are more aware of as illegal sources of abuse. In comparison with those illegal drugs that we're familiar, cocaine and heroin and meth, how dangerous are prescription drugs? 

DUFFY: You know what? I think that is an excellent question. I think many young people mistakenly believe, and I think parents, family members and friends mistakenly believe that pharmaceutical drugs are safer that illicit street drugs. And they have that belief because you can get them from doctors. You can get them from pharmacies and hospitals. You don't have to go to a traditional drug dealer to get these drugs. It's a kind of drug that information comes with the drug on how you take it. But it's critical for adolescents and teens to understand. It's critical for parents to understand that prescription drug misuse and abuse is every bit as dangerous illicit drug use. 

CAVANAUGH: Your office has identified a new trend in prescription drug abuse, the emergence of Mexican Pharma-cartels.

>> We've seen cartels whose primary drug of importation and distribution is pharmaceutical drugs. And again, this is the oxo code owns, typically known by the primary brand name, OxyContin. Vicodin, and other like drugs that are being -- two things are happening here. They're being diverted in the United States from doctors offices, from pharmacies, from clinics, and from individuals who are willing to sell them. They are then being couriers down across the board and sold on the black market in cities like Tijuana and Mexicali. Once those drugs are into the black market, they're being sold on the Internet. And they're being sold without prescriptions, being sold to adolescents and to teens and to anybody really who contacts them. They're being sold on twitter, they're being advertised with popups. All things through the Internet that our young people have access to. And once an order is placed, the payments are taken over the Internet like they are for a lot of goods today, once the payment is received those drugs are crossed back over into the United States, taken to locations in the United States from where they're shipped out, and they use the commercial mail system. This is something that people have very ready access to through the Internet, but they also have very ready access to, you know, separate and apart from this, trafficking in their family medicine cabinets and pantries. The unused medicines, are the expired medicines. So we're really dealing with two parallel problems that are going on here. 

CAVANAUGH: And I think you've explained to us too why the U.S. attorney's office is now involved in this. It is international. It goes across -- the drugs go down across the border and come back up. If it is on the Internet, it must be very difficult to track down and to stop these kinds of operations. 

DUFFY: It is difficult, and it is time-intensive. But we have some experience in this area because we are initially in the early to mid-2 thousands addressed this problem as far as steroids go and Ketamine, addressing the sale of those drug, which Sherrie will tell you is how Aaron got into prescription drug use and a lot of kids are getting into prescription drug use, initially starting steroids and increasing from there. Of 

CAVANAUGH: Sherrie, does it surprise you that prescription drugs are becoming this big business? When we started to hear about prescription drug abuse, it was all about medicine cabinets, and it was all about parents not taking all of their medicine, and storing them, and kids getting into the cabinet. But this has morphed into something very different. 

RUBEN: It does and it doesn't surprise me. Supply and demand. If our public and our youth are going to purchase them, there will be some smart people out there that are going to make a buck on it. And what I try to express to young adults is if you do make this choice to go down this path and take these pills, you will be in the company of some very unscrupulous people. You will be putting yourself in harm's way, whether that be the drug dealer, the doctors, anyone who would gladly sell you prescription pills that they know that you are going to abuse and misuse that could take your life. And so I think the diversion of these drugs is so important. And here in San Diego, we have the sheriff's drop-off boxes that everybody -- you don't have to wait for the national takeback day. You can take those unused meds and bring them to one of the sheriff's stations, no questions asked, drop them off, get them out of the medicine cabinet, and out of the hands of those who should not have them. 

CAVANAUGH: Laura Duffy, if you'll allow me, since we are talking about U.S. attorney's anti-drug crackdown, I'd like to just change the subject a little bit for a moment. The ongoing federal crackdown on medical marijuana. 

DUFFY: Okay. 

CAVANAUGH: Several cities in San Diego will be voting on establishing a new medical marijuana dispensary system. What will your office do if those measures pass? 

DUFFY: Well, our office will approach those particular cities, and there's three of which I'm aware of in the southern district of California who do have that on their ballot initiative, the same way we've approached the problem thus far. And our position is really very clear. While individuals have a legitimate debate as to whether marijuana should or shouldn't be used or whether it's a medicine or not, I understand that that debate is out there. And that's a debate that needs to be had. But until the statutes are changed and the United States Congress changes the way it is defined, Control 1 substances, the obligation that I have and that my United States attorney colleagues have is to enforce federal laws. So under the federal laws, under the controlled substance act, the possession of marijuana, the manufacture, distribution of marijuana is illegal. It's a federal felony. And so we will be turning our attention not to individuals who are terminally ill and who are growing small amounts of marijuana in their backyards or in their homes for strictly medicinally purposes. But we're going to be addressing those retail marijuana businesses who are selling marijuana for profit out of storefronts like we have been doing over this last two years. 

CAVANAUGH: Two city officials if these ordinances are passed have anything to fear about potential prosecution if they try to implement these new ordinances? 

DUFFY: I would look at every single case as it comes in. And it's going to be case-specific. I cannot tell people, and I've been asked this question by officials, and I don't give my opinions unless it is asked of me, but unfortunately if officials are looking for immunity across the board, that's sometime something they could give them. But what we are focused on is not having marijuana available for sale, are people making a profit out of storefronts. What we know to be true is this, when youth have access to drugs, and the view is that those drugs are not harmful, youth drug use increases. And so our focus is on responding to the citizens in our community, the educators in our community, and others who have raised this issue as it's a problem. It's a problem in their schools, their neighborhoods, they're seeing increased incidences of crime, increased incidences of people coming in and buying marijuana, under aged people coming in and buying marijuana. So that's who we're looking at targeting. Those kinds of shops and businesses. 

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for taking a moment to answer that. I want to wrap up our discussion on prescription drug abuse by going back to you, Sherrie. As you told us about Aaron's situation with prescription drugs and the terrible price that he paid for that one bad choice in his life, it must be painful for you and Aaron to tell this story over and over again before students. Why do you do it? 

RUBEN: Well, Maureen, it's too late for Aaron. His life is altered, our life is forever altered. But it's not too late for another family to hopefully listen to the message that we are giving, and the prescription task force is giving, and our U.S. attorney is giving and collaborating here in San Diego to help prevent the needless loss of life. I wish that seven years ago someone was having this conversation about prescription pills and I had more knowledge of the signs, symptoms, behavior changes, and where they could possibly get these pills so I would be a more informed parent. So then as a more informed parent, I could inform my child. If we don't education ourselves about every and all things that are affecting us in society, then we can't educate our children, and they will be educated by the person who comes up to them at school and says try this. 

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. There is a link to the U.S. attorney's website at Thank you both very much. 

RUBEN: Thank you. 

DUFFY: Thank you.


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