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Florida's drug problem with prescription painkillers is spreading

ERWIN, Tenn. — Cpl. Stacy Wigand of the Unicoi County Sheriff's Office has long been accustomed to the prescription drug problem that plagues his mountain community in eastern Tennessee.

But his discovery on a recent Friday night was indicative of the new wave of trouble sweeping through the hills and hollows of Appalachia — trouble that is increasingly coming from South Florida.

The manager of the local Wal-Mart had called to report a sport utility vehicle in the parking lot, with Kentucky plates and a driver who appeared to be asleep. Wigand discovered a clutch of pills in the man's pocket.

Two of his friends were found wandering inside the store, too blitzed to pass a field sobriety test.

"They couldn't even count to four," Wigand said.

Wigand searched the SUV and found six bottles of the prescription painkiller oxycodone in the engine compartment — 1,168 pills in all. From the bottles, it appeared the trio of Kentuckians had obtained the drugs two days earlier with prescriptions written by two doctors from Broward County.

In counties like this one, Florida opiates are giving oranges a run for their money as the Sunshine State's best-known export.

With most Appalachian states now closely monitoring narcotics prescriptions with the aid of statewide computer databases, officials in these states now say their drug addicts and dealers are taking their business to South Florida, where they often use fraud and deceit to purchase pills that are legally dispensed by doctors at storefront "pain clinics."

The poorly regulated clinics often advertise on the Internet, making specific pitches to non-Floridians. A Web page for the Broward Pain Clinic says it accepts "patients from all states" and requires that patients bring proof of their pain. An unidentified employee who answered the phone at the clinic recently said that it was a cash-only business and did not accept insurance.

Antidrug advocates say Florida has become a magnet for pill buyers in part because it is the largest state without a prescription-monitoring program.

The trade can be lucrative. Sgt. Richard Pisanti of the Broward County Sheriff's Office said that an 80-milligram dose of oxycodone — a popular and addictive opiate — could be purchased for about $4.50 in a Florida clinic. The same pill sells for $80 on the streets of Unicoi County, according to the county sheriff.

The United Way of Broward County Commission on Substance Abuse released a report showing that the state's physicians give out five times the oxycodone of their colleagues in other states. In the second half of 2008, all of the top 50 oxycodone-dispensing doctors in the nation were Floridians, according to federal figures compiled in the report.

The Miami Herald detailed many of these facts this month in a series of reports that noted that some of the clinics were owned by ex-convicts.

Officials across the Southeast have taken notice. On March 20, Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo sent a letter to Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul urging him to support bills pending in the Florida Legislature that would tighten the regulation of the clinics and create a monitoring system.

Last week, the Florida Senate passed legislation to create a statewide database. The measure still requires approval in the House of Representatives. Bills introduced in previous years have failed because of lawmakers' concerns about keeping medical records private.

In Unicoi County — an undulating 186-square-mile swath of former tobacco land — a number of pharmacy workers said that since January, out-of-town drug users had been pulling off the interstate on a near-daily basis and trying to fill Florida prescriptions.

Joe Snyder owns Clinchfield Drug Co., an old-fashioned store on Main Street with a lunch counter and multicolored candy canes for sale. He, like many others here, has stopped filling Florida prescriptions.

Sheriff D. Kent Harris said he was busy enough with the locally generated drug problems. But these days, he is also monitoring developments in Tallahassee.

"It's obvious that when something down in Florida is affecting little old Unicoi County, they need some controls down there," he said.

Florida's drug problem with prescription painkillers is spreading 04/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 10:22pm]

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