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24 hours of Tampa Bay's prescription drug epidemic

Twenty-four hours of an epidemic:

At a Wednesday night school assembly, 200 parents and students swore to take action in memory of two Palm Harbor University High School classmates they believe may have died from prescription drug overdoses.

"This is a war to save our children," principal Herman "Doc" Allen told the group.

On Thursday morning, 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. Neighboring businesses celebrated as though released from bondage.

The same morning, the Tampa City Council was told that pain clinics are wide-open operations, rife with abuses. The council authorized police to inspect the clinics whenever they want.

Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin told the council:

"It's an epidemic. People are dying here."

• • •

A prescription drug crisis that has simmered for years seemed to erupt all over the Tampa Bay area in one night and day.

But it's an epidemic years in the making. 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.

The Legislature passed a law to track prescription drug dispensing, but it won't go into effect until December. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have approved moratoriums on new pain clinics and new restrictions on existing ones.

About 5,000 Floridians die each year from pain medications.

• • •

On Wednesday night at Palm Harbor University High School, parents talked about digging through their children's things. Students suggested combing the campus with drug-sniffing dogs.

But it took two hours for anyone to say why 200 parents, students and members of the community really showed up.

"Children at Palm Harbor University High School died of drug abuse," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala. "You have to say it. We all have to talk about it. This is not a secret."

Two students have died since February. Many speculate that their deaths are related to prescription drugs. The cause of the deaths, one of which happened two weeks ago, has not been confirmed. The Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner has not yet released reports.

Some parents who showed up Wednesday night hadn't heard anything about the deaths or the suspicion that they're linked to prescription drugs.

But the problem isn't isolated to teens.

Last year, 249 accidental drug-related deaths occurred in Pinellas County, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. Of those, 179 were attributed to prescription drugs.

Last fall, principal Allen closed an overflow parking lot where students were smoking marijuana. He soon learned the problem was worse.

"A student came to me and said, 'I know you don't believe it, but they're doing prescription drugs.' "

Allen said he plans to hold forums with each grade. Over the summer, a team of teachers will use the feedback to formulate a plan.

"My heart is broken over these children who have died," said teacher Lynn Lemmon, who is part of that team.

Chris and April Jordan, parents of a 16-year-old, said other mothers and fathers have to wake up. "We don't think there's an awareness level that there should be," said April Jordan.

Allen said after the meeting, "I always thought there was a drug issue. I just couldn't see it."

• • •

Neighboring business owners cheered Thursday morning as federal agents and Tampa police raided the Tampa Bay Wellness Center at 2137 W Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd.

Out-of-state cars jammed the parking lot of the center for weeks. The neighbors pointed out the other two businesses being raided just down the street — the VIP Pharmacy and Macron Medical Technologies, on the 1900 block.

A day care center operates right across the street from the Wellness Center. Chad Locicero, owner of A Today's Child, said parents have been afraid to leave their kids.

He nervously asked police if the pain clinic would be shut down permanently. He couldn't get a promise.

When police arrived, they trapped scores of customers in the back parking lot, herding them all against a wooden fence with hands raised. Four customers were arrested on misdemeanor charges.

• • •

The Tampa City Council heard Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin liken the pain pill epidemic to scourges like crack cocaine, domestic violence, even terrorism.

He said Tampa police had 128 active investigations.

Council member Charlie Miranda said he feared Tampa turning into a Mexican border town — a magnet for drug markets.

Council members immediately passed an emergency law requiring pain clinic operators to seek special permits. It also allows Tampa police to inspect the businesses whenever they're open or occupied.

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

24 hours of Tampa Bay's prescription drug epidemic 05/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 8:28am]
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