The businesses, all of which are small grocery stores that cater to Cherokee's Hispanic community, are accused of selling antibiotics over the counter.
The Cherokee Multi Agency Narcotics Squad collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Georgia Drug and Narcotics Agency on Thursday morning to execute nine search warrants. Seventeen people were arrested in connection to the sting.
Stores hit with a search warrant were: Cabana Grocery at 9740 Main St. in Woodstock; El Trebol Supermarket at 10350 Main St., Suite 110 in south Cherokee; Super Mercado La Villa at 6158 Highway 92 in southwest Cherokee; Los Nortenos at 5681 Bells Ferry Road in southwest Cherokee; La Piedad at 6501 Highway 92 in southwest Cherokee; Panderia Gloria's Bakery at 5902 Bells Ferry Road in southwest Cherokee; El Huerta Tienda at 231 Riverstone Parkway in Canton; Tienda Y Carniceria Mi Pueblo at 180 Riverstone Parkway in Canton; and Miselaneas San Rafael at 555 Marietta Road in Canton.
Those arrested and charged were: Candelario Pelayo, possession of a dangerous drug; Jesus Pelayo, possession of a dangerous drug; Jose Veroin-Pelayo, possession of a dangerous drug; Fernando Velasquez-Lopez, possession of a dangerous drug and schedule II drug codeine; Juan Loaraca, possession of a dangerous drug; Marcelo Delgado, possession of a dangerous drug; Orlando Rodriguez, possession of a dangerous drug; Henry Tobias, operating a pharmacy without a license; Jose Espindola, possession of a dangerous drug; Mercedes Arteaga, possession of a dangerous drug; Glenda Arriaga, possession of a dangerous drug; Gisela Mendoza-Silva, operating a pharmacy without a license; Veronica Ibarra-Guzman, operating a pharmacy without a license; Lily Mazariego, operating a pharmacy without a license; Carmen Gayardo-Jimenez, operating a pharmacy without a license; Regina Delgado-Cruz, possession of a dangerous drug; and Maria Tobias, possession of a dangerous drug.
Store managers and owners arrested were charged with misdemeanor possession of a dangerous drug and those dispensing the medication were charged with the felony of operating a pharmacy without a license, said Phil Price, CMANS commander.
Drugs recovered from the sting were antibiotics like penicillin, said Sheriff Roger Garrison. Codeine was found at Micelaneas San Rafael in Canton.
While it's not a scheduled narcotic, antibiotics, used to treat bacterial infections, are a controlled substance that only can be obtained from a licensed pharmacist with a prescription from a licensed doctor.
No prescription pain medication or other illegal drugs were sold at the stores, Garrison said. The stores, he added, were stocked "like a regular drug stores."
Antibiotics, Garrison said, can be lethal if not properly taken.
"Again, it can be just as dangerous... if given to children in inappropriate doses," he added.
The sheriff noted no complaints of possible overdoses or deaths have been made to the sheriff's office in connection with the illegal sales.
Side effects of antibiotics include nausea, diarrhea and, rarely, drowsiness, said Chris Stevens, a pharmacist at Cherokee Custom Script Pharmacy in Holly Springs.
Stevens said long-term use and higher dosages of antibiotics can kill friendly bacteria in a person's gastrointestinal tract, which can create digestive problems. Long-term use also can create antibiotic-resistant strains that are hard to treat, such as the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) that plagues hospitals and some schools.
Also, taking antibiotics passed its expiration date can drastically reduce the medication's potency.
Garrison said they received a complaint four months ago about antibiotics being possibly sold in a store in Cherokee. CMANS, in conjunction with ICE and the state narcotic agency, launched "Operation Alex," and conducted undercover buys at the nine stores.
The sheriff added it's unknown where the drugs came from or why the stores were selling antibiotics.
Garrison speculated the demand of the drug could be a sign of the times, as "a lot of scrutiny" has been placed on illegal immigrants using public services such as emergency rooms.
The stores, said Canton Police Chief Jeff Lance, are set up like convenience stores and have "everything" a shopper may need.
Lance, who is the chairman of the CMANS Control Board, said the selling of such drugs over the counter could prove hazardous to a person's health for another reason.
As someone who is allergic to penicillin, Lance said using handing out drugs such as antibiotics without proper, prior approval could cause people to "die or get sick."