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The New Black Market: Selling HIV Meds for Cash

January 19, 2012

There's a new drug trade in town: selling HIV medications.

In Washington Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood, officials are seeing a growing number of HIV-positive individuals selling their meds. This growing trend of trading health for much-needed cash isn't new, but it illuminates how a crippling economy and disproportionate poverty impact people living with HIV.

Trading life-saving meds for cash highlights the relationship between employment and eligibility requirements for programs such as the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) or HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), as some HIV-positive individuals have to choose between holding a job and keeping benefits from these types of assistance programs. It also raises the question of how advocates can help people living with HIV better understand their options when receiving health care, so that they won't feel pressured to partake in illegal activity.

The Uptowner reported:

Street sales have been particularly noticeable near uptown subway stations for more than six years, according to Dr. Michael Mowatt-Wynn, the president of Precinct 33's Community Council. Prescription painkillers are prevalent, but the most popular drugs aren't addictive and don't produce any kind of high: HIV antiretroviral medications. ...

[...] "I saw a mother with children in tow, no more than 5 or 6 years old," Mowatt-Wynn says. "She was selling her HIV medicine, saying she needed to get food for her children. So she was basically selling herself. It's a form of medical prostitution -- that's what we call it."

In other countries, HIV medication is expensive and uncommon, making it a lucrative product for the black market. Buyers stand around the more popular uptown subway stations as if it's a full-time job. From 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, they're buying prescription medication from people who will use the proceeds to buy food, pay bills or fuel an addiction. Pharmacists then buy and repackage the drugs so they'll sell for higher prices and ship them to countries with high demand, like the Dominican Republic and Mexico, [Pablo] Colon [the senior HIV counseling and treatment specialist at the New York City HIV organization Iris House] says.

According to The Uptowner, as a way to deter these sales, the "council and [33rd] precinct have instituted new policies to try to reduce the drug trade, placing cameras on lampposts at the most popular subway stations and stationing patrol officers nearby."

City Limits also reported on the same issue:

... [A] bill sponsored by New York Sen. Kemp Hannon and passed by the Senate in June could close that gap if approved by the assembly this year.

The bill identified an "exploding black market in non-controlled substance medications," including AIDS medications that are either sold to pharmacies or shipped overseas. Under the bill, first degree "criminal diversion of prescription medications and prescriptions" moves from a C felony (with likely maximum jail time of five to 15 years) to a B felony, for which the maximum is eight to 25 years.

Pharmacists play a crucial role in the trafficking as well. Ms. Cruz, who has sold her medications in the past, provided City Limits with the following scenario:

The HIV [positive] patient calls to let the pharmacist know in advance that it's not really the pills he or she is interested in buying, but something else. Upon arrival at the pharmacy, the pharmacist scans the barcode on the bottle of pills, and then hands over a plastic bag filled with a few hundred dollars, instead of the medication.

The pharmacist can then sell the pills back to drug dealers or ship them directly overseas.

Have you ever considered selling your AIDS meds to make ends meet?

[Editor's note: Sadly, Pablo Colon passed away on Dec. 30, 2011, at the age of 49.]

Warren Tong is the research editor for and

Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenAtTheBody.

Copyright © 2012 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
More on the Economics of HIV Care


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