TAMPA — Three to five people die every week in Hillsborough County from prescription drug overdoses, according to the Sheriff's Office.
So when the Florida Agency from Health Care Administration sent a letter to all sheriffs in the state asking them to reach out to pharmacists to help combat the problem, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee took action.
Gee is sending letters to every drugstore in the county, asking pharmacists to closely inspect prescriptions written by out-of-state physicians or those for nonresidents. He is also asking that pharmacies not fill those prescriptions, if possible.
"Abuse increased exponentially over the past 10 years," said sheriff's Capt. Scott Wellinger, a 19-year veteran of the agency. "This is one tool in our kit."
Florida is notorious for being an easy place to get large amounts of oxycodone and other pain medications, according to Gee.
State records show overdoses killed 681 people in the Tampa Bay area last year. Oxycodone overdoses alone accounted for 128 deaths and methadone killed 81 people in Hillsborough County in 2009, according to medical examiner statistics.
Still, the letter seems a little presumptuous on the sheriff's part, said Paul Doering, distinguished service professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Florida.
"There is not a single word in that letter that we in the pharmacy profession are not acutely aware of," he said. "The biggest weapon against it is strict enforcement and prosecution of people who participate in prescription drug diversion."
Wellinger said there needs to be vigilance all levels — doctors, pharmacists, law enforcement and courts — for an anti-abuse initiative to be truly effective.
After the letters have been issued, the Sheriff's Office will continue its normal undercover operations, Wellinger said. There won't be any massive follow-up or compliance check of local pharmacies, he added. Gee's initiative is completely voluntary when it comes to the pharmacies.
"We're just asking for their help," sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said.
Gee acknowledges in the letter that the drugs benefit those dealing with intense pain.
"However, when used inappropriately, these drugs lead to horrible addiction, crimes committed to feed addiction, families destroyed, and ultimately death," he writes.
Gee's letter comes a day after the Pinellas County chapter of NOPE, Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education, held a vigil for victims of prescription drug overdoses.
Doering said all pharmacists have a right and responsibility to refuse to fill any prescription they believe is not issued in the course of regular medical practice.
In other arenas, Florida laws can make it difficult to meet the problem head on. It typically takes 18 months to bring disciplinary action against a doctor and it took the Legislature seven years to approve a system to monitor prescription drugs.
"(David Gee) is absolutely right that this is a huge problem of epidemic proportions. His letter signifies the desperation of how people are trying to come up with new ways to combat this problem," Doering said.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.