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Drugstores now the focus of painkiller crisis, investigations

The prescription pain pill crackdown in Florida by federal agents is migrating quickly from pill mills to mainstream drugstore chains. Witness last week's search of six Walgreens stores — including in Port Richey and Hudson — and its distribution center in Jupiter.

Small wonder. Red flags soared quickly at Walgreens, the country's largest drugstore chain.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says that in 2009 no Walgreens retail pharmacies were listed among the DEA's top 100 Florida purchasers of oxycodone — a key ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan.

By 2011, 38 Walgreens made the list. By February, the total reached 53 of the top 100. So says a warrant filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

In Fort Myers, the DEA says one Walgreens pharmacy sold more than 2.1 million oxycodone pills in 2011. That's more than 22 times the oxycodone sales at the same pharmacy two years earlier.

Big jumps in the sales of such pills, purchased with cash rather than paid for by insurance, is a big tipoff that drugs are being diverted to dealers and addicts.

Walgreens says it is cooperating with DEA. It's curious the company's in-house monitoring of drug shipments from its own distribution warehouses apparently did not catch the soaring rates of painkillers sent to some of its own chain stores.

Walgreens is not the first retailer snagged in this mess. The DEA recently moved to suspend Cardinal Health's license to distribute controlled substances from its facility in Lakeland. And it sought to halt two CVS Caremark pharmacies in Florida from selling similar drugs.

Both companies are fighting the orders in court.

An Associated Press analysis shows sales of oxycodone and hydrocodone, an ingredient in Vicodin, have exploded in new parts of the country. Experts worry the push to relieve patients' suffering is spawning an addiction epidemic.

In 2000, the AP analysis found that oxycodone sales in Florida were centered around West Palm Beach. By 2010, oxycodone was flowing to nearly every part of the state.

Georgia registered a sharp uptick in sales. Robberies that target pharmacy painkillers have also increased.

Experts still point to such Appalachian states as Kentucky as ground zero for painkiller abuse, a geographic reason for the nicknames "pillbilly" and "hillbilly heroin" to describe painkiller addicts.

Deaths from narcotic painkillers now exceed those of heroin and cocaine combined. Prescription pills trump auto accidents as the nation's No. 1 cause of accidental death.

What costs $1 per prescription pain pill in Florida can go for $10 to street dealers and as much as $40 to the addict.

Nationwide, according to the AP analysis, pharmacies dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010. That's enough to give 40 5-mg Percocets and 24 5-mg Vicodins to every person in the United States.

The average pharmacy in the U.S. distributes 74,000 oxycodone pills annually, the DEA says. In Florida, it's more than 112,000.

Living in Florida can be tough, but it's not that painful.

Information from Times wires was used in this column. Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Drugstores now the focus of painkiller crisis, investigations 04/09/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 9, 2012 8:30pm]
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