Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Public safety

Some oxycodone sales are down in Florida, but the street trade still is brisk

New laws, tougher enforcement and the prescription drug monitoring database have cut sales of oxycodone from doctors' offices and pharmacies dramatically. That's the word from a federal report that some officials say shows Florida is starting to win the fight against prescription painkiller abuse.

But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said there's just as much oxycodone as ever being sold illegally. The narcotic caused the most drug-related deaths — 1,516 — in Florida in 2010, records show.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said of the new initiatives. "But we're not seeing any difference at the street level."

The sheriff said his measuring stick is the price of one illegally obtained tablet of oxycodone. It's $17 in his jurisdiction — and has been for the past eight to 10 months. That's compared with the $1 someone with a legitimate prescription would pay for one pill, according to Gualtieri.

"We see fluctuations in heroin and cocaine costs," he said. "When there are some significant drug seizures, you'll see the price go up because supply was down. It's a simple business concept."

But in the street price of oxycodone, the sheriff said: "We're not seeing any changes."

Plus, he said, there are just as many people struggling with prescription drugs as ever, to judge from his deputies' workload.

Last week the Drug Enforcement Administration said new state laws and local and federal law enforcement efforts have struck at Florida's reputation as the "epicenter" of the nation's pill mills. That status was solidified in 2010 when the DEA said Florida had 90 of the top 100 doctors in the nation who purchased the most oxycodone to sell from their offices. Such direct sales are a hallmark of notorious storefront operations that drew streams of drug-seekers from around the country.

But in 2011, thanks to the state's new measures, the DEA said the number of Florida doctors on that dubious list fell to just 13.

In July a new state law took effect that forbids most doctors from dispensing prescription painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone and Vicodin. The result: There was a 97 percent drop in the amount of oxycodone sold out of physicians' offices in 2010 compared with 2011, according to the DEA.

Last year the prescription drug monitoring database, which tracks patients' prescriptions to deter doctor-shopping, was strengthened by the Legislature, but only after it survived opposition from some Republican legislators and, initially, from Gov. Rick Scott.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the bill's champion, recalled colleagues' efforts to not only repeal the database, but also loosen existing regulations on drug sales.

The senator was not surprised to hear that law enforcement is still seeing a brisk street trade in prescription drugs.

"Although we've made some significant inroads in addressing this prescription narcotic epidemic, we still have a long way to go," Fasano said. "The database, though, is working. I know that for a fact."

The database now contains information on 26 million prescriptions dating back more than a year, according to a Brandeis University study.

The DEA said Florida's stringent new measures have forced out-of-state addicts who used to visit the state's pill mills to seek painkillers elsewhere. Officials say that's why more doctors in Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee are dispensing oxycodone.

Tampa Bay area law enforcement officials say there has been a decline in pill mills all over the region. In Pinellas, there were 65 to 70 about 18 months ago, Gualtieri said. Now, he estimated, it's in the low 20s.

The pill mill problem also has hurt those who need pain relief the most, said David Craig, a pharmacist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

"This whole front for illegal activity has cast a cloud over the legitimate care of patients," he said.

Craig is also concerned that the state's efforts have made it harder for legitimate pain patients to obtain the painkillers they need. Fewer pharmacies are carrying oxycodone now for fear that the authorities will investigate them. Late last year, for instance, CVS announced it wouldn't accept narcotics prescriptions from some doctors.

"The financial reward to managing a patient's pain is very little," Craig said. "So a lot of people who are in it are asking themselves, do I want to be investigated by the DEA? Do I want to stick my neck out?"

Craig said that he even knows cancer patients who see news reports of oxycodone being abused, and then wonder if they should be taking such a drug.

"It's not in vogue to prescribe oxycodone," Craig said. "I think it strikes fear in a lot of doctors, patients and pharmacists.

"Oxycodone is a bad word these days."

Dr. Rafael Miguel, a pain physician and professor at the University of South Florida, said there are still enough pill mills to harm pain patients in other ways: They're soaking up so much oxycodone that they're making it harder for patients to obtain them legally.

"The shortage is being produced because pill mills continue to write scripts for massive and unjustified numbers of oxycodone," he said.

The sheriff said a day doesn't go by that his deputies don't have to wrestle with the prescription painkiller in some fashion.

"Whether it's a theft call, a domestic call, a mental health call, it permeates our calls for service every day," he said.

The sheriff said he thinks the oxycodone crisis has peaked, but ultimately the prescription painkiller problem is really about treating addiction.

"As long as they're addicted, they're going to find another opiate," Gualtieri said. "That's why the answer to this is dealing with the addiction problem."

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

Comments
Trinity teen killed in crash remembered as

Trinity teen killed in crash remembered as "positive" and "smiling"

TRINITY — Friends said they will remember Lillia Morris, who was killed Tuesday in a car crash, as always smiling.Morris, 17, was killed after a 2008 Chevrolet SUV ran a red light and slammed into her car at State Road 54 and Duck Slough Boulevard.Ka...
Updated: 6 minutes ago
Armed carjacking suspect on the run in Hillsborough

Armed carjacking suspect on the run in Hillsborough

PLANT CITY — Multiple law enforcement agencies are searching for an armed man who may be responsible for a string of Wednesday morning carjackings, including one that involved gunfire, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.The man was...
Updated: 21 minutes ago
UCF student from Hillsborough, one other accused of rape; fraternity suspended

UCF student from Hillsborough, one other accused of rape; fraternity suspended

ORLANDO — A University of Central Florida student from Hillsborough County and a fellow fraternity member face charges after they were accused of raping a woman at a party.That fraternity has since been placed on interim suspension.Orange County Sher...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Two hospitalized after crash on Bayside Bridge

Two hospitalized after crash on Bayside Bridge

CLEARWATER — Two Brandon men were hospitalized Tuesday night after they lost control of their car and crashed into trees on the south end of the Bayside Bridge, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.At 8:15 p.m., 19-year-old Coi Jenkins was driving...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Memorials, crisis counselors at Lakewood, day after student dies in crash

Memorials, crisis counselors at Lakewood, day after student dies in crash

ST. PETERSBURG — Memorials are building and crisis counselors were at Lakewood High School on Wednesday morning, a day after a student was killed and two others seriously injured in a crash Tuesday afternoon.The fatal crash occurred just before 2 p.m...
Updated: 4 hours ago
He spent 17 years in prison. Now he’s a free man.

He spent 17 years in prison. Now he’s a free man.

TAMPA — Dwight DuBose walked out of the Orient Road Jail on Tuesday night after trading an orange jumpsuit for a brand new polo shirt and slacks. It was about 9 p.m. He flashed a broad smile and hugged staff members of the Innocence Project of...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Pasco teen killed after SUV runs red light; man who fled scene captured

Pasco teen killed after SUV runs red light; man who fled scene captured

NEW PORT RICHEY — A 17-year-old girl was killed Tuesday when her car was hit by a sport-utility vehicle that ran a red light, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.One of the occupants of the SUV who ran from the crash scene was captured hours late...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Days before graduation, crash kills Lakewood High senior, injures two others

Days before graduation, crash kills Lakewood High senior, injures two others

ST. PETERSBURG — Caps and gowns were in the future for Bryson Welton-Williams and his two friends.Then came Tuesday’s horrific car crash.The three 18-year-old Lakewood High School seniors drove off from school a few minutes early, just 22 days away f...
Updated: 9 hours ago
He tried to rob two pharmacies. Both times he left empty-handed.

He tried to rob two pharmacies. Both times he left empty-handed.

TAMPA — Police are looking for a man who failed to rob two pharmacies last week.No one was harmed during the botched heists, but the man may be armed with a handgun, police said.Detectives on Tuesday released surveillance video that showed the man in...
Published: 04/24/18
FHP: Riverview motorcyclist critically injured in crash on I-4

FHP: Riverview motorcyclist critically injured in crash on I-4

TAMPA — A 41-year-old motorcyclist was critically injured in a Monday night crash on Interstate 4, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The crash took place at about 7:15 p.m. Cristobal Padilla, of Riverview, was riding a 2004 Suzuki motorcycle in...
Published: 04/24/18