TAMPA — Prescription drug trafficking has taken a hit in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office wrapped up its first major operation, netting 135 arrests and 5,000 confiscated pills. And a Central Florida pain clinic co-owner pleaded guilty Monday to trafficking oxycodone.
But until Florida catches up to other states with more stringent regulations, making arrests will only put a dent in a larger problem, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Donna Luscynski, who led Operation Side Effects.
"We can arrest all the people we want, but until something gets changed, it will continue to be a problem," she said.
She called prescription medications "the new crack," adding that the number of prescription drug-related deaths in Florida has dramatically increased.
In the first half of 2009, oxycodone caused 499 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That's more than double the number of deaths caused by cocaine in the same period — and nearly five times the number of deaths caused by oxycodone in the first half of 2006.
In Florida, regulations for pain clinics lag behind those of other states. People seeking medications to sell on the street often drive to Florida to get the pills. Fourteen of those arrested in Operation Side Effects were from out of state, Luscynski said.
"Two men from Tennessee came to buy 1,000 oxycodone pills," she said. "They drove overnight to buy them at $5 a pill and then sell them at $30 each."
That's a profit of $25,000.
Florida lawmakers are trying to catch up and crack down.
On April 29, the state Legislature passed a bill that would limit the number of pills that can be sold to patients, curb advertising and impose tougher standards for doctors and clinic owners. It awaits Gov. Charlie Crist's signature. If approved, it would take effect Oct. 1.
All pain-management physicians, even those running legitimate businesses, would have to deal with the increased regulations, which could cost thousands of dollars in inspections, licensing and permits. But Dr. Deborah H. Tracy, president-elect of the Florida Society of International Pain Physicians, said she supports the proposed legislation.
"It will create more of a hassle for all of us," said Tracy, who works in Spring Hill. "But we recognize there's a problem. So even though it's a pain, we support it."
In the meantime, Pinellas has approved a temporary moratorium on new pain-management clinics. It will be in place until Oct. 1 and could be extended.
Hillsborough County commissioners are considering a similar ordinance, proposed by Commissioner Rose Ferlita, a pharmacist.
Tampa is working on its own ordinance, City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.
An important part of the state's crackdown is the prescription drug monitoring system, which the Legislature passed but likely won't start until next year. It would electronically track prescriptions to prevent people from "doctor shopping" or getting too many pills in a short period of time.
Although Luscynski hopes the new regulations will help, she's not content to simply wait. The 135 people arrested in the monthlong operation were all patients, and she said there are pain clinic employees and doctors who are involved in the fraud. Detectives will pursue them in the next phase, she said.
She's careful to point out that many of the county's 73 registered pain clinics seem to be legitimate. And some doctors don't necessarily know that they're prescribing medications to people who plan to sell them, she said.
Nonetheless, local physicians and high-level employees have been accused of illegally prescribing medications.
On Monday, Troy Wubbena, a co-owner of the Neurology & Pain Center clinics in Central Florida, pleaded guilty to charges of trafficking oxycodone.
Authorities say Wubbena, of Tampa, got blank prescription forms presigned by his supervising physician, Dr. Jeffrey Friedlaner, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally prescribe oxycodone and conspiring to defraud Medicare.
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.