BROOKSVILLE — For a county the size of Hernando, 14 deaths from drug overdoses in just the first five months of this year seems way too many to County Commissioner Jim Adkins.
He has raised the issue of regulating so-called pill mills as a way to control the problem and on Tuesday, commissioners told staff to prepare a moratorium on new pain clinics.
Brooksville City Council also agreed to a moratorium Monday night.
"There's big money to be made in that,'' said City Council member Joe Bernardini who suggested the move and also encouraged the county to do the same thing.
The moratorium, which has been taken in numerous other communities, is designed as a stop-gap move until a new state law regulating such businesses takes effect later this year. Some places are also imposing even stricter rules than the state, and that is something welcomed by Hernando Sheriff's Capt. Jim Walker.
"It's very refreshing to see both on the state level with this new law but also on the local level'' that people are beginning to realize what a huge problem Florida has with prescription drugs, Walker said.
Hernando County has 11 pain clinics but Walker said that none have the same level of publicly noticeable activity as clinics that have earned headlines in Hillsborough County in recent months. "They're businesses. They're establishments that, as we've seen, operate with varying levels of legitimacy,'' Walker said.
He has spent the last two years working on issues related to the drug problems in Hernando County. As a member of multiple panels that examine the problem with stakeholders ranging from judges to counselors, Walker said the issue that struck him the most was the number of deaths.
From the period of 2006 through the first part of 2009, Hernando County had 135 overdose deaths, more deaths than by traffic accident. That is a rare statistic, he said.
Statewide, prescription drug overdoses kill six people a day.
Last year Walker said that those fighting the war on drugs were glad to see the passage of the monitoring law that allows tracking of people who get multiple prescriptions from multiple physicians. The move to regulate pill mills is another step in the efforts to get those numbers to decline.
"It's a systematic way of making the supply go away,'' he said.
The law and the local efforts to keep pill mills from popping up in the community has been in response to the operations around the state which draw customers from across the country. People come from all over to get easy prescriptions with few questioned asked.
"You've got the highly addictive quality of these drugs,'' Walker said. "They're an unregulated business. What do you think is going to happen?''
The law signed by Gov. Charlie Crist last week will require clinics to go through yearly inspections, register with the state and maintain a physician as a director.
In a news release this week, the Florida Medical Association, which strongly supports the new rules, voiced concerns about many pain clinics in Florida with out-of-state and non-physician owners.
The new law also will keep clinics from selling more than three days worth of pills for those paying in cash and will limit the number of prescriptions a clinic can write per day, among other rules. There will be both criminal and civil penalties for violations.
Bernardini noted that it was wise to make sure that as all the surrounding areas pass moratoriums, Brooksville and Hernando County needed to do the same thing.
"(Customers) are going to go somewhere,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.