By Mark Ackerman and By Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4) – A CBS4 hidden camera investigation revealed some Denver grocery store clerks selling prescription drugs without a license.
Over a six-month period, CBS4 purchased drugs that are supposed to come from a doctor or pharmacist, but found grocery store clerks essentially prescribing drugs for customers. The practice is illegal and medical professionals say it can be terribly unsafe.
Undercover CBS4 producers made multiple visits to Carniceria y Fruteria La Mexican, a grocery store located at 706 Sheridan Boulevard in Denver. On one occasion a CBS4 producer asked for something for back pain. The clerk pulled out a large container of pills and then suggested tetracycline, an antibiotic that is supposed to be dispensed by a pharmacist. CBS4 purchased two pills for 90 cents each.
On another visit a CBS4 producer complained of a cough and cold and asked for penicillin. This time the clerk sold her the antibiotic, ampicillin. Again we bought just two capsules, this time for $2.50 each.
CBS4 also visited Carniceria La Sierra, a grocery store located at 3170 West Alameda Avenue in Denver and purchased ampicillin capsules and children’s amoxicillin. This time the CBS4 producer purchased a full course of both drugs, paying $39 total for the two antibiotics.
Then CBS4 took the antibiotics to the University of Coloado Skaggs School of Pharmacy to have the drugs tested for authenticity. In each case Dr. Peter Rice said the drugs purchased were authentic, but warned that’s not always the case.
“A lot of times, non-prescription meds that are taken on the black market are meds that are not pure or may not be beyond their stability date”, he said.
Rice said the prices the grocery stores charged were likely more expensive than prices at a retail pharmacy.
“They are also not paying for the expertise to make sure they are getting the right antibiotics to actually help them,” he said, calling the recommendations the grocery clerks made “potentially dangerous.”
“Tetracycline is an interesting choice for back pain,” said Rice. “It should not be used in children. It can produce discoloration in the teeth.”
He also raised concerns about the children’s amoxicillin CBS4 purchased in a powdered form without mixing or dosing instructions. He said amoxicillin can be life-threatening to people who are allergic to penicillin.
Jose Hernandez, the owner of Carniceria y Fruteria La Mexican, said he “doesn’t want to make people sick by selling medicine.”
Hernandez said he ordered the medications from a wholesaler in Mexico and believed the pills were legal to sell.
“If it is something illegal, I’ll stop selling it,” he said.
The owner of Carniceria La Sierra also said she didn’t realize some of the medicines her store sold was illegal.
The Colorado Pharmacy Board confirmed the grocery stores CBS4 visited do not have licenses to sell prescription drugs. In July, the Pharmacy Board issued a cease-and-desist order to Tortilleria Los Comales in Greeley for selling prescriptions without a license. In 2014, cease-and-desist orders were issued to Las Delicias Tienda Mexicana and Las Delicias Carniceria in Fort Collins for selling antibiotics.
Dr. Tillman Farley, who oversees clinics across the Front Range that serve the Latino community, said in Mexico, buying antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription is a “cultural norm.”
“When folks come up here they don’t drop their cultural background at the border,” he said.
Farley, who serves as the chief medical officer at Salud Family Health Centers and La Clinica Tepeyac, said there are plenty of low-cost or no-cost health care options that are safer for patients.
“It’s best to go to a full-service primary health care provider”, he said. “Not the grocery store.”