Hundreds of pounds of medicinal drugs were confiscated from a St. Paul market this week after several overdoses involving such substances were reported, including one that was fatal.
On Tuesday, local and federal law enforcement officers seized piles of unmarked or misbranded pills, drugs and syringes, including suspected sodium cyanide, steroids, penicillin and opiates, from more than 15 vendor stalls operating inside the Hmongtown Marketplace at 217 Como Av., the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department said.
The Hmongtown Marketplace, formerly known as the International Marketplace, is a year-round indoor-outdoor market with more than 200 vendor stalls that carry wares ranging from DVDs and produce to children’s toys and traditional Hmong clothes.
The Ramsey County Violent Crime Enforcement Team and the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations have been probing the distribution of the drugs at the market for the past several months.
Over the past six months, one death and five overdose poisonings have been linked to the kinds of substances sold by vendors at the market, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Randy Gustafson. Victims included adults and children.
“For years, everybody has known that it has been happening,” Gustafson said of the illegal sale of drugs. “It’s kind of like one of those open secrets.”
Earlier this spring, Chue Lor, who had just killed his estranged wife, Panhia Yang, and her brother, committed suicide by ingesting cyanide, St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said. It was not clear if Lor bought the substance in question at the market.
“There are legitimate businesses” at the market, too, Padilla said.
However, some vendors had been warned by authorities not to sell the drugs in question.
“It got to the point with these injuries and the death … we had to have a law enforcement response to do our part to stop it,” Gustafson said.
Evidence gathered at the scene will be processed in the coming weeks for possible criminal charges.
Market remains open
On Thursday afternoon, it was business as usual at the marketplace as people shopped the various stalls. Inside the building where Tuesday’s search took place, ingredients used in herbal medicine stood across from stands of less traditional aids such as soaps that claim to help the user lose weight and pills from Thailand that purportedly cure people of diarrhea.
When approached by a reporter, several vendors referred questions to the market’s management.
Tuesday’s search, which excluded food vendors, took place at the market’s East building, manager Jameson Liu said. The vendors at the stalls where the drugs were seized were allowed to remain open, he said. Nobody has been arrested.
“We basically are just cooperating fully with the authorities,” Liu said.
The St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections examines stalls that sell food and will report if they see illegal violations in medicine stalls, department spokesman Robert Humphrey said.
In the past few years, he has heard of inspectors encountering drugs similar to those that were confiscated. Those instances were reported to the proper authorities, Humphrey said.
Since the beginning of 2009, there have been more than 380 police calls to the marketplace address, St. Paul Police Department records show. Most were for routine complaints, and there were only two minor reports involving drugs — one for marijuana possession and another related to narcotics.
“The safety of the public will be improved by stopping the illegal distribution of these unknown drug products by nonpharmaceutical sellers,” Ramsey County sheriff’s chief deputy John Kirkwood said in a news release. “These vendors have been knowingly placing the community at risk by engaging in these illegal sales and distribution.”