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State targets rise in drug scams

As Gov. Bush calls for a grand jury to investigate drug counterfeiting in Florida, an FDLE agent says arrests are near.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 24, 2002

People suffering from cancer, HIV or other diseases have benefited greatly from a new generation of drugs that have helped prolong their lives.

Now these expensive and highly sought medicines have led to the rise of drug counterfeiting.

Authorities say some wholesalers in Florida are diluting or repackaging drugs so they can sell a weaker product at a higher cost. The patients may never know that instead of a life-prolonging medicine, they are getting a diluted drug or an outright fake.

Gov. Jeb Bush last week asked the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate the "troubling criminal trend" of drug counterfeiting.

Michael Mann, special agent supervisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Miami, said he has been investigating drug counterfeiting for nearly a year and that he expects to see arrests as early as next month.

The investigation has centered on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but Mann stressed in an interview Monday that the probe is expanding.

"This is a big problem and these people really need to go to jail. ... They're preying on the most vulnerable people," said Mann, who also was interviewed about the problem Sunday on the CBS television show 60 Minutes.

Mann, saying counterfeiters work in several ways, outlined one of the more common scenarios:

A drug distributor receives a box of medicine, typically an expensive blood-building drug for people with weakened immune systems. Mann used the example of a box of 10 doses of Epogen, which raises red blood cell levels, and can cost about $250. The distributor repackages the medicine with labels that say it's in a more concentrated form. Suddenly, the box costs $4,700.

On a large scale, a distributor can reap huge profits in a short time, Mann said.

Doing it that way means patients would not get the medicine they need.

"That's the unbelievable part," said Jeff Richardson, spokesman for California-based Amgen, which manufactures Epogen, Neupogen, which helps build white blood cells, and other medicines. "It is so difficult to think of a mind that would try to make money by putting sick people's health at risk."

Mann said he cannot prove anyone has died because of receiving counterfeit medicine. But he said, "If we could prove one death related to this and could identify the counterfeiter, I have no problem at all with seeking premeditated murder (charges) against them."

The 60 Minutes story implied that drug manufacturers don't aggressively publicize instances of counterfeiting because they don't want the bad publicity.

Richardson countered that Amgen has notified federal officials and physicians about specific counterfeiting incidents in Florida, and written about the problem on its company Web site.

The Florida Department of Health has suspended the drug wholesaler's license of Jemco Medical International of Pembroke Pines in Broward County, one of the companies mentioned in the 60 Minutes report.

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