The prescription painkiller oxycodone killed more Floridians than ever last year, and nowhere was that more evident than Pinellas and Pasco counties.
A report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released Thursday found that oxycodone was the cause of 1,185 state deaths in 2009, a 26 percent increase from the year before and a whopping 249 percent increase from 2005.
And among the 24 medical examiner districts in the state, the St. Petersburg district — which is Pinellas and Pasco counties — had the most deaths caused by oxycodone, with 197. The Fort Lauderdale district had 161 oxycodone deaths, the West Palm Beach district had 130, and the Tampa district, which comprises all of Hillsborough County, had the fourth most with 128.
The Pinellas-Pasco district also led the state in methadone deaths with 117 and hydrocodone deaths with 45.
A variety of factors may account for Pinellas' high numbers, said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.
Part of it may simply be more accurate reporting. The Pinellas-Pasco office is fully automated, which limits mistakes made by manual reporting. The office also sends investigators to more deaths than any other district in the state, Pellan said. Identifying drugs at the scene helps narrow toxicology tests.
"It's almost like having Monday's film on Saturday … like having the playbook of your opposing team before the game," Pellan said.
Despite having fewer deaths, some other counties have a higher percentage of deaths caused by oxycodone when you consider their smaller populations, Pellan said.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a serious problem in the Tampa Bay area, said Capt. Robert Alfonso, head of the narcotics division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Alfonso said he's seen indications that doctor shopping is moving north from Broward County after a county ordinance was passed there to shut down unscrupulous pain clinics.
"In Pinellas, there's a large population they can meld into, plus have access to the pill mills," he said.
The FDLE report comes at a time when attention to prescription drug abuse in Florida is at an all-time high, with well-publicized police raids at Tampa Bay area pain clinics. The state Legislature has recently passed laws aimed at cracking down on the problem, including creating a prescription drug monitoring program set to start this year. And law enforcement agencies, including the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, have decided to devote more resources to catching prescription drug abusers.
Overall, prescription drug deaths monitored by the state Medical Examiner's Office continued to climb to 2,488 last year. That's an average of seven deaths per day, noted Bruce Grant, director of the state Office of Drug Control.
At the same time, deaths caused by some illegal drugs declined. Heroin deaths decreased by 20 percent to 111. And cocaine deaths decreased by 18.4 percent to 529.
Law enforcement officials have attributed the opposing trends to the fact that prescription drugs are much easier and cheaper to obtain than illegal drugs.
Among other findings in the report:
• The drugs that caused the most deaths in the state last year were oxycodone (1,185), benzodiazepines, which are used to treat stress, anxiety and seizures (1,099), methadone (720), ethyl alcohol — defined in the report as alcohol or ethanol (559), cocaine (529) and morphine (302).
• Alcohol was the drug most commonly found in deceased people, with 4,046 occurrences. The report included data on deaths in which a particular drug was found to be the cause, and deaths in which a drug was merely present in the body. It's not uncommon for multiple drugs to be found in the body at the time of death.
• 5,275 people died with one or more prescription drugs in their systems. The drugs also may have been mixed with illicit drugs and alcohol.