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Pasco joins crackdown on pain-management clinics

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County commissioners are pursuing a moratorium on new pain-management clinics, following the lead of nearby counties stepping up attempts to deal with prescription drug abuse.

Commissioners made their decision Tuesday after hearing from state Rep. John Legg, the Pasco Republican who sponsored legislation to crack down on the so-called pill mills that attract addicts and dealers, including those from other states.

"Florida, sadly, has been dubbed 'the OxyContin Express,' " Legg told commissioners.

Legg said that as counties in southern Florida put new regulations in place to deal with the clinics, the problem has moved north.

"I'm afraid to say, they're coming here to Pasco," he said.

Crime statistics show the abuse has already arrived.

In Pasco, violent crimes that were connected to prescription drug abuse totaled nine in 2004. By 2009, that number had jumped to 86, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Prescription drug fraud cases in Pasco numbered 57 in 2004. Five years later, that count was at 138.

Getting a handle on the number of pain clinics in Pasco is difficult, in large part because many of them do not register or even call themselves pain-management clinics, Legg said in an e-mail. The legislation would make failing to register a third-degree felony.

One unofficial count puts 35 clinics in Pasco County, according to a figure provided to Legg's office by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, a group that tracks the clinics.

"It's just legalized drug use," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said. "If we don't do this … shame on us."

In effect, the moratorium buys counties time until the state legislation takes effect in October. It also gives local governments a chance to figure out whether they want to institute their own regulations.

Florida is the largest of the dozen or so states without a monitoring system for prescription drugs. Of the nation's top 100 doctors who dispense oxycodone, 92 are in Florida, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. About 5,000 Floridians die each year from pain medications.

The new state legislation would keep better track of the clinics and give local law enforcement agencies more authority to investigate cases.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have approved moratoriums on new pain clinics and new restrictions on existing ones.

The Hillsborough County ordinance bans new clinics that focus largely on dispensing pain pills from opening after June 15, until the new state law regulating their operation takes effect in October. It also includes stringent new rules and registration requirements for existing clinics that local officials say will stay in place after the state law goes into effect.

Last week, federal agents and Tampa police swooped down on a pain-management clinic in Tampa, surprising scores of people waiting for prescriptions, many of them parked in out-of-state vans.

Commissioner Michael Cox said he remembered hearing about a clinic on U.S. 19 that was shut down after an investigation found it was handing out prescription drugs.

"These people are dirtbags," he said, "and they need to be run out of our county."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco joins crackdown on pain-management clinics 05/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:30pm]
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