Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada has a message for people who appear before him in court: If you use oxycodone, don't drive.
That might sound obvious, considering that Florida is in the midst of what has been called a prescription drug abuse epidemic that is killing roughly seven people a day. Oxycodone is a particularly potent pain medicine, and also particularly addictive.
But Quesada applies his policy even to those who are taking oxycodone completely legally, with each dose prescribed by a doctor.
His reasoning: The drug generally comes with a warning that people should not drive or use heavy equipment when under the influence of the drug.
So when Quesada learns defendants are using oxycodone, he modifies their probation and tells them they are not allowed to drive. At all.
"As long as they're on oxycodone, I'm going to suspend their driving," Quesada said in an interview. That restriction lasts as long as the defendant remains on probation.
Quesada's policy is one more way the legal system is grappling with prescription drugs, which are legal and medically necessary in many cases but deadly in others.
"I think it's very dangerous. I think it's a very serious public safety issue that so many people out there are impaired by oxycodone," he said.
Quesada presides in a Pinellas court for people accused of violating probation for all sorts of offenses, which don't necessarily involve drugs. People on probation often are required to submit to random drug tests, which sometimes turn up the presence of oxycodone or other drugs.
If the person has a prescription for oxycodone, there's nothing illegal about finding it in his or her drug test. But if that same person gets behind the wheel, it could endanger the public, Quesada said.
Quesada said he's not criticizing people who take oxycodone legally. He said he has needed pain medication after recuperating from surgery and understands that it can be medically important.
On the other hand, it's not hard to find evidence of people abusing the drugs. Some people in his courtroom wear a telltale "dull-witted" look, he says, and barely stay awake. He also wonders about people who stay on powerful pain medications for years for vague-sounding ailments.
Defense attorneys give mixed reviews to Quesada's policy.
"I can see what the judge's concern is," said lawyer Ron Smith, but he also believes that some people take their medicine properly and drive without being impaired.
Lawyer Dwight Dudley said he, too, sees the judge's point, but adds, "I think there are people that can take it responsibly."
Quesada has an answer to that. If people on probation can get their doctor to write a letter saying they are capable of driving safely, despite regularly taking oxycodone, he would allow them to keep driving.
So far, he said, no doctor has written such a letter.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.