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Underground Market for HIV Meds: The New "War on Drugs?"

January 18, 2012

Underground Market for HIV Meds: The New 'War on Drugs?'

Could the underground sales of HIV medications could become a new extension of the "War on Drugs?"

This week, three different news stories ran in NYC press about the underground market of HIV drugs being sold, mostly to reach shores outside of the U.S. where the demand is even greater.

City Limits ran a feature story on the issue, explaining that a new bill is being considered this session in Albany, that would increase the penalty for selling prescription drugs in the underground market. They write that if the bill becomes law, "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."

The Uptowner published a story also about the sale of HIV medications in Harlem and Washington Heights, and interviewed the late Pablo Colón, who helped explain why people with HIV are making this choice: "A lot of us are tired, a lot of us are poor," Colón says. "There are a lot of us who are homeless, a lot of us who have children who are hungry. A lot of us live on the edge. The same reasons that you go out and sell your body is the same reason they sell their medication."

Lastly, The Associated Press reported that a Washington Heights based physician, Dr. Suresh Hemrajani, was sentenced to 2-6 years in prison for allegedly fraudulently billing Medicaid $700,000 in prescriptions for HIV related care he wasn't providing, and drugs which were sold on the underground market. Thirty of his patients have been charged with crimes associated with this activity.

We know people with HIV may be putting themselves at risk for ill health if they skip treatment, or take medications that may not be the best regimen for themselves. But further criminalizing the symptoms of poverty is not a solution. The problem here, as Colón stated, is people being forced to chose between basic survival (food and shelter) and their health. Criminalizing this practice will not help, as long as people in the U.S. or abroad do not have access to treatment, housing, jobs with living wages, or comprehensive health care. Rather than increasing the criminal penalties, it seems the cries for universal and global access to free treatment and care for people with HIV, should finally be heard. It's the only real solution.

The AIDS Issues Update will be paying close attention to this bill as it moves forward.

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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