Nearly 109,000 New Yorkers are living with HIV or AIDS, and their expensive array of medications has become particularly popular on the black-market in the past couple of years, according to law enforcement sources.
Washington Heights has become the heart of the illegal HIV drug traffic, police sources in the area said.
"We're facing a completely different situation than the usual crack, cocaine, marijuana," said Michael Mowatt-Wynn, president of the 33rd Precinct's Community Council for 10 years.
Five or six years ago, he said, he first started noticing the unusual business inside the 157th Street subway station on the number 1 train.
"On 157th Street at the top of the stairs, there are between two and five Hispanic young men searching the crowds and people coming up the stairs," said Mowatt-Wynn.
They're looking for people who could be coming out of the pharmacy with medications, carrying plastic bags, he said. With a simple nod of the head, one of the men will go down the stairs and, in full view of passers-by, exchange the bag for cash. According to Mowatt-Wynn, the transactions became too obvious, so the buyers now escort the seller to a nearby street corner.
So far, this kind of drug dealing has not been punished harshly by the judicial system. But a bill passed by the state Senate in June would make the crime a class-B felony, carrying eight to 25 years in jail, if it’s approved by the assembly this year.
Case managers and doctors are torn over whether the possible stricter punishment will discourage a dangerous practice or merely punish people who make a bad decision against challenging circumstances, such as being behind on rent or needing food.
"They sometimes have to face a difficult choice," says case manager Antionettea Etienne, who is a co-chair of the New York City Planning Council. She said the dilemma often boils down to this question: "Should I get my medication, or food for me and my kids?"
Demand for drugs abroad
Law enforcement officials suspect that demand for HIV drugs in foreign countries fuels the trade in HIV medication.
"What I know is anecdotal, I don't have any data. But they are often sent overseas because medications aren't available, like in Dominican Republic," explained Tom Tapp, chief of the Bronx District Attorney's Arson and Economic Crime Bureau, which prosecutes Medicaid fraud and other abuses related to prescription drugs.
The incentive for access to these drugs is acute. According to a 2011 report from the World Health Organization at least 45 percent of the HIV/AIDS population in the Dominican Republic had no access to appropriate treatment in 2009. In Haiti, 47 percent of people needing antiretroviral drugs didn't get them, and in Jamaica some 38 percent did not.
Two major busts
Two major arrests by the Drug Enforcement Administration dismantled two drug rings last year. One was in Brooklyn and involved a bodega owner and a couple who were shipping the HIV medication to the Dominican Republic. The other arrest took place in Yonkers, where DEA agents seized 6,500 bottles of pills worth $4.23 million. According to the DEA, many of the bottles were the kinds of medications used to treat people with HIV.