TAMPA — In Tallahassee and Tampa, authorities took aim Thursday at the sources of the prescription drug abuse epidemic.
Armed with a stack of 88 warrants, Hillsborough deputies arrested dozens accused of dealing prescription pills. They led the men and women — ages 21 to 73 — from their homes, some in pajamas, and booked them on charges of possession and delivery.
Meanwhile, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced a multipronged strategy to address so-called pill mills, including legislative recommendations.
"We are the epicenter for the country in prescription drug abuse," she said at an hourlong news conference in Tallahassee. "Cracking down on pill mills is one of our top priorities."
Key provisions of Bondi's legislative proposal include:
• Mandatory six-month suspension and a $10,000 fine for doctors who violate standards of care when prescribing controlled substances.
• A felony conviction for people who lie on applications to run pain clinics.
• Criminal penalties for doctors who fail to perform a physical exam before dispensing 72 hours' worth of controlled substances.
• Fines for keepers of controlled substances who fail to report thefts to law enforcement within 48 hours.
Hillsborough authorities have already raided suspicious clinics and tried to prosecute a physician. On Thursday, they set their sights on the streets.
During the past three months, undercover deputies bought and sold pills and interviewed witnesses for Operation Pain Reliever.
They prepared 88 warrants but waited to make arrests en masse, hoping to draw publicity. By Thursday afternoon, deputies had arrested 55 people.
"It's the tip of the iceberg," said sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway. "But putting a lot of people in jail sends a message."
Oxycodone was the most popular pill, selling for $10 to $15 on Hillsborough streets, said Maj. Donna Luscynski.
"It's the crack of this generation," she said.
Among those arrested was Ross Dudley Thomas Jr., a 46-year-old man who says he's homeless. He was charged with delivering and possessing hydrocodone and cannabis.
As deputies led Thomas past a group of reporters, he denied selling pills. Florida records show he has been arrested for panhandling along Florida Avenue intersections.
And though Thomas has been convicted of trespassing, petty theft, battery and criminal mischief, state records show this was his first drug arrest.
Also arrested was 73-year-old Thomas Hilton Bennington Jr., who lives at New Beginnings of Tampa, which provides temporary housing for veterans and others in need. He was convicted of cocaine possession in 2008, state records show.
Deputies believe some of the suspects got their pills legitimately and sold them. Others went "doctor shopping," Luscynski said.
The Sheriff's Office planned to interview each suspect for possible leads to dealers and unscrupulous clinics.
Hillsborough will get help prosecuting such cases.
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox said that Bondi's office would assign a prosecutor temporarily to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.
She shared the dais at Thursday's Tallahassee news conference with former South Florida Sen. Dave Aronberg, whom Bondi hired to serve as Florida's drug czar.
South Florida has been particularly hard hit, with 9 million oxycodone tablets prescribed in Broward and Palm Beach counties in the first six months of 2010, she said.
"These are legal drug dealers," Aronberg said. "There are now more pill mills in Broward County than there are McDonald's in Broward County."
A statewide response is necessary to end "drug tourism," he said.
Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Ileana Morales contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or [email protected]