NEW PORT RICHEY — Over the past six months, Pasco detectives tracked down fraudulent prescriptions, investigated tips and scoured west Pasco for street-level and mid-level drug dealers, posing as buyers in search of pain pills. They ultimately amassed a list of nearly 90 targets.
Tuesday, they pulled the trigger.
Officers from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and New Port Richey Police Department arrested 44 people Tuesday in a massive drug sweep and had warrants in hand for 45 more suspects.
"Our detectives have been pretty busy," Sheriff Bob White said at a press conference Wednesday morning, standing next to a large green poster that bore photographs of all 89 suspects.
According to the sheriff's office, a handful of the arrests involved possession of marijuana or cocaine. More than 90 percent involved charges related to prescription medication such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and Xanax. Almost a quarter of the arrests were for "doctor shopping," or obtaining medication from multiple doctors.
White noted that his deputies seized 17,063 prescription pills from January to May this year, topping the 13,958 seized during all of 2009. He used the surge in prescription drug abuse to renew his call for more deputies on the streets.
"It's just all-out war," White said Wednesday. "We have been understaffed, and the problem doesn't go away. It takes an awful lot of resources to do this."
Earlier this month, White released a proposed budget that would increase public safety spending by $3.9 million, a good chunk of which would pay for 28 new road patrol deputies.
White said the number of officers in the Pasco vice and narcotics unit has not changed since he became sheriff in 2001. He said more than half of the arrests in Tuesday's drug sweep happened in Holiday, one of the two areas he wants to target with additional deputies.
"The first and most important economic dollar spent is to get the riff-raff out of there," he said.
But county officials note White hired 24 new deputies last year through a federal grant. With the county facing a severe budget deficit, commissioners say everyone must cut back, including the sheriff. They have told White to limit his spending to the same amount he received this year.
"I think the arrests he did (today) and the arrests he's done recently tell me he's done a darn good job. They're doing it with the staff they have," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.
While hiring even more deputies "would be wonderful," she said, "we have to look at the constraints of our budget."
White countered with more statistics: During 2009, there were 126 prescription-related deaths in Pasco. From January 2009 to May 2010, 88 suicides were reported. In the same time period, 385 overdose reports.
More manpower would help target major drug dealers, pain clinic operators and pharmacists who aid drug abuse, White said.
Times staff writers Jodie Tillman and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.