Lockeford pharmacy shut down, forced to pay $1M in penalties

Nov. 18—A local pharmacy and its owner have agreed to pay $1 million in penalties for allegedly violating the Controlled Substances Act, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced this week.

Nor-Cal Pharmacies Inc., which was doing business as Lockeford Drug, and owner Lawrence Howen have agreed to a permanent injunction that permanently bars them from dispensing controlled substances, owning a company that dispenses controlled substances, or employing another person that dispenses controlled substances, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced Monday.

"As a pharmacy that fills prescriptions for opioids and other dangerous drugs, the defendants had an obligation to fill only legitimate prescriptions," Talbert said. "The defendants failed to comply with that obligation, and thereby failed in their responsibility to prevent the opioids from being diverted into illicit channels. This case demonstrates our firm commitment to enforcing federal laws involving prescription drugs."

The injunction, signed by U.S. District Judge Ana de Alba, includes findings that the pharmacy knew or deliberately ignored that it was illegally dispensing controlled substances for non-medical reasons.

According to the injunction, the pharmacy, located at 14090 Highway 88, dispensed 116,330 pills, including more than 100,000 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, based on invalid prescriptions presented by Joe Anthony Bernal, a defendant charged in a separate criminal case.

During the investigation, it was determined that the pharmacy continued to fill prescriptions for Bernal, even though there were suggestive circumstances that he was not providing legitimate prescriptions.

In addition, the pharmacy took no steps to determine the validity of Bernal's prescriptions and were not concerned if those medications caused patient harm, the injunction states.

Bernal is charged with conspiring with several others to illegally acquire and distribute oxycodone and hydrocodone.

He has not been found guilty of the charges, as the case against him — stemming from a similar investigation in Monterey County from 2019 — is ongoing, reports state.

In that case, investigators found a doctor dispensed 452,000 pills without legitimate reason between 2014 and 2019.

"The defendants went from pharmaceutical provider to drug dealer when they knowingly provided controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose," DEA Special Agent in Charge Brian M. Clark said of the Howen case. "This egregious behavior by a trusted individual and entity not only fuels the fire of the opioid epidemic, but also wreaks havoc on the community they serve. DEA is committed to keeping our communities safe and healthy and will hold registrants accountable by ensuring they are in compliance with the law."

According to the California State Board of Pharmacy, Howen's license was revoked in November of 2020.

The government then initiated a civil enforcement against him the following January.

Neither Howen or his attorney, Santa Rosa-based Justin Hein, could be reached for comment.