BROOKSVILLE — Sheriff Al Nienhuis said the top priority in his new position will be to end the rampant illegal use of prescription drugs in Hernando County.
In the coming weeks, Nienhuis said, he will push for a county ordinance that would place stricter regulations on the area's so-called pill mills.
"The bottom line is we want to make sure those businesses are legitimate," he said of the companies known as pain clinics. "It's a very, very difficult thing for us to deal with," the sheriff told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Thursday.
In the first half of 2010, Hernando County had 24 deaths caused by prescription drugs — double the statewide average per capita, according to records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
County commissioners discussed a related ordinance last year but declined to enact it after former Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law that would require clinics to go through yearly inspections. But because new Gov. Rick Scott has placed a hold on new legislation, the pill mill regulations have not taken effect.
"The Florida Legislature has taken action on this issue, enacting tough regulations on so-called 'Pain Management Clinics,' the storefront pill mills that traffic in these deadly drugs and make Florida a key link in the illegal distribution of pills across the southeastern United States," state Sens. Mike Fasano and Nan Rich wrote in an op-ed piece to the Times. "Unfortunately, recent actions of some of our colleagues in the Legislature, as well as our new governor, are undermining Florida's efforts to stem the tide of addiction and death caused by these drugs."
As of December, authorities said, Hernando had 16 pain clinics in the application process or registered with the Florida Department of Health. There is no penalty for not registering, however, so more could exist.
Now, without any stopgaps in place, Hernando sheriff's Col. Mike Maurer said, six new pain clinics are poised to open in the county within the next two months.
"We definitely need to do it, and I'll support Sheriff Nienhuis on this," County Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said of the proposed ordinance. "Where the state fails, we have to control it."
With Nienhuis' help, Adkins said he wants an ordinance passed by next month.
The area's pill mills draw people from around the country who come here to buy cheaper drugs in bulk with few questions asked. While an oxycodone pill in more northern states might cost $80, Maurer said, it could cost as little as $12 in Florida.
It's not uncommon for people to buy hundreds of pills at once from the clinics, the sheriff said.
The Brooksville City Council passed an ordinance last year that requires pain clinics to gain permits before they can open in the city, said council member Joe Bernardini.
"It helps protect us from this type of establishment coming in and the people that deal in prescription drugs," Bernardini said. "I wanted to be proactive rather than reactive."
The boom of illegal prescription drug use has even affected the way thieves burglarize homes.
"They go right to the medicine cabinets and right to the prescriptions," Maurer said. "That's just another transformation of criminalistics."