ORLANDO — The crackdown on Florida's pill mills, rogue doctors and drug abusers — through a range of new legislation, law enforcement efforts and other programs — is having a significant impact, federal officials say.
Sales of the painkiller oxycodone, one of the most abused prescription drugs, dropped 20 percent last year in Florida, according to data released this week by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Florida pharmacies and doctors sold more than 622 million doses of the powerful narcotic pills in 2010. That number dropped to about 498 million doses last year.
"It's great news for Florida," said Bruce Grant, Florida's drug czar until Gov. Rick Scott abolished the office in 2011. "It shows that the actions, activities and legislation over the last two to three years are starting to have an effect — especially over this last year."
New state laws that went into effect July 1 now ban pain clinics and doctors from selling certain pain drugs and toughened the penalties against those who overprescribe.
Officials predicted those laws could have a drastic impact, and the federal data show it has: Florida doctors purchased 97 percent less oxycodone in 2011 than they did in 2010.
In 2010, 90 of the top 100 oxycodone-buying physicians in the nation were in Florida. Last year, the number dropped to just 13.
Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study & Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, said fewer out-of-state drug abusers and dealers are coming to Florida for oxycodone because the supply of easy and cheap pills has diminished.
The short supply drove up prices, Hall said, making Florida less attractive for illegal pill buyers. Prices are now $80 for an 80 mg oxycodone pill on the street, compared with $20 a year or two ago.
"Oxycodone has become far more scarce in the total street sales," Hall said. "The price would be a major factor in discouraging people from coming to the state to buy pain pills."
Officials say Florida's recently launched Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is also having an impact. The database lets doctors and pharmacists look up whether a patient has been buying excessive numbers of painkillers and other controlled substances from multiple sources.
Supporters of the database say it also helps law enforcement catch abusers and over-prescribing doctors, and also acts as a deterrent.
Grant, a strong supporter of the PDMP, said the program has been "absolutely critical to this."
Doctors know their prescribing patterns can be tracked. Drug addicts who used to travel to Florida because the state didn't have a PDMP now know law enforcement can see what drugs they are buying.
DEA officials say those out-of-state drug abusers and traffickers — dubbed "pillbillies" — appear to be turning elsewhere. The agency has documented "notable" increases in doctors buying oxycodone in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
"These traffickers are not coming down to Florida like they did before," DEA spokesman David Melenkevitz said. "The medical professionals got the message, too: Either straighten out or we're coming after you."
In Central Florida and South Florida, local governments have responded to the epidemic by putting moratoriums on new pain clinics, which can be fronts for pill mills.
But not everyone agrees that the latest DEA figures are proof of effective policing and legislation aimed at curbing Florida's prescription drug epidemic.
Paul Sloan, president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers, said the DEA has been overstating the amount of oxycodone abuse and trafficking in the state. He called the new figures "a joke" that lets the DEA "declare a phony victory."