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Pinellas imposes temporary ban on new pain clinics

CLEARWATER — A self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head killed Matthew Fox this year at age 29.

But his mother Charlotte says the trigger was something else — too many prescription drugs that were too easily scored.

Injured while working for the family roofing business in 2006, Fox got a prescription for oxycodone. Then his mother says he got more — like 400 in one prescription for 20 days — by doctor shopping, trading and selling drugs.

"This is a pain I will never get over," said Charlotte Fox, a 56-year-old Tarpon Springs teacher who made headlines in February with her stark description of her son's death in his obituary.

On Tuesday, she and other relatives of drug addicts crowded a Pinellas County Commission meeting to ask officials to help stem the tide of prescription drug abuse. They got their wish: a moratorium on new pain management clinics in the county by a 7-0 vote.

After hearing their stories, the board agreed to put the moratorium in place until Oct. 1, though it could be extended. The stop date coincides with the start of tougher state restrictions passed by the Legislature and expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Under the new county law, pain clinics will have 30 days to register with Pinellas or face fines up to $500 and possible court-ordered shutdown.

There are 62 clinics in Pinellas registered with the state now, and four more applicants to begin business, sheriff's officials said. The applicants will not be affected by the ban.

Sheriff Jim Coats also created a task force to study long-term solutions.

Without seeing enough action by the state until recently, Commissioner Susan Latvala proposed the moratorium in April to mimic bans by Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The moratorium has limits. It doesn't address people who doctor shop or commit fraud, or existing clinics that overprescribe.

Two people, including St. Petersburg neurosurgeon David McKalip, also warned the commission that the ban could hinder people with legitimate medical needs.

"It's no silver bullet," Latvala acknowledged.

But the measure will help slow the spiking problem of pill mills, said Sgt. Dan Zito, drug investigator for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. "If I were to deputize every person in the room, I could give every person 20 cases if not more," Zito said, calling the sheriff's office approach triage. The moratorium "gives them the tools to really slow down this issue."

In the past decade, local and federal authorities say Florida has become a haven for prescription pill abuse, including the rise in pill mills targeted by the moratorium.

The human toll of the epidemic was evident at Tuesday's meeting.

Assistant Public Defender Chris Hammonds brought pictures of people who died after abusing prescription drugs, flashing their stark faces on commission televisions.

Families told stories of deadly overdoses, sons imprisoned, and a baby born at 2 pounds and addicted.

Allan Stowell's son Jimmy, 26, got hooked on pain pills like OxyContin. He was found barely breathing and had his stomach pumped after mixing pills with alcohol. Then he was arrested on a trafficking charge — which turned into his dad's only relief.

"I feel good that he's in jail right now," said Stowell, 68. "Because he's safe."

Stowell and other parents said the county could reduce the risk of another Jimmy — or another Matthew Serra, 28, who died in 2008 with a stash of pills at his side. The Largo man had been a standout swimmer and destined for something greater.

His stepmother, Lauri Serra, had these words for the commission: "Bottom line is, we need to stop what's going on here in Pinellas County."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Rules on outdoor tethers, dangerous dogs tightened

Dogs can no longer be left tied up outside and unattended for prolonged periods in Pinellas County after a 7-0 vote Tuesday by the County Commission. The new law also makes it easier to declare a dog dangerous and euthanize it, and lowers the minimum number of days the county's animal services division will keep strays. The county didn't put an exact time definition to "prolonged period," but the board did reject Commissioner John Morroni's attempt to ban any unattended tethering of dogs to match an ordinance in Seminole.

Pinellas imposes temporary ban on new pain clinics 05/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 1:44am]

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