CLEARWATER — On a grassy field in Clearwater, in a courtroom in Tampa and under a bridge in Indian Shores, the Tampa Bay community's battle against prescription drug abuse is playing out.
One by one Wednesday morning, a stream of suspected drug dealers and abusers were brought to an athletic field populated by police vans, an RV and officers coming and going. The police roundup, part of Operation Pill Popper, produced 38 people who were charged with illegally obtaining or selling oxycodone and carted off to the Pinellas County Jail.
Across the bay in Tampa, in a rare trial of a doctor on drug trafficking accusations, the physician took the stand to refute testimony from undercover detectives that he never examined them or asked for medical histories before prescribing Vicodin and Xanax.
And in Indian Shores, a suspected drug trafficker was in jail after authorities found him hiding under a bridge. The arrest came after a doctor called authorities to let them know the man was back in town.
The juggernaut of prescription drug abuse, which now kills more people annually in the Tampa Bay area than car accidents, has enlisted an impressive set of combatants, from the U.S. Attorney's Office to local police agencies and elective boards and commissions.
But the battle continues to reveal the insidious depth of the problem and the challenge of overcoming it.
"It's definitely growing," said Pinellas sheriff's Capt. Robert Alfonso. "I wouldn't be surprised if in the next investigation, we double these latest numbers. It's not an unimaginable thing."
Law enforcement officials and lawmakers alike have highlighted these kinds of cases to argue that Florida needs a prescription monitoring program that would used a centralized computer database to help doctors determine if a patient has been doctor-shopping. State lawmakers have passed a monitoring program law, but several hurdles have delayed the program's launch until next year.
Efforts to crack down on prescription drug abuse have become more prominent recently with high-profile police raids on pain clinics. The state Legislature passed new laws aiming to curb doctor-shopping and crack down on physicians who overprescribe. Law enforcement agencies have been pouring more resources into nabbing painkiller abusers and traffickers.
But statistics increasingly show that the problem has become deeply entrenched in society.
Last year in Florida, 2,488 people fatally overdosed on prescription drugs, with 681 deaths occurring in the Tampa Bay area.
While local law enforcement agencies await tougher legislation on prescription drug monitoring, they have launched their own ground-level attacks.
A Pinellas task force carried out the first Operation Pill Popper in February, focusing on 74 suspects, 150 counts of doctor-shopping and about 55,000 pills with an estimated $750,000 street value.
Wednesday's Operation Pill Popper II targeted 175 people on 375 charges, including doctor-shopping, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and conspiracy to sell and traffic various pain medication, the sheriff's office said. They are suspected of illegally obtaining or selling more than 100,000 oxycodone pills since January.
A multiagency law enforcement task force set up a staging area early Wednesday at a Clearwater field.
Deputies brought suspects to the field, where they were loaded into vans and taken to jail in front of reporters and TV cameras.
"We're trying to bring this effort out into the streets," said Alfonso, the sheriff's captain.
By the end of Wednesday's staged bust, deputies had arrested 38 people, adding to the 52 people arrested from the start of the investigation July 1. Alfonso said deputies would continue seeking arrests related to the investigation.
Deputies said 68 of the 175 targeted in the investigation have been operating as an organized group that involves using homeless people or addicts to take their own ID cards and fake prescriptions to pharmacies. The recruits then give the pills back to the recruiters for either money or a portion of the pills.
"It's not all about money," Alfonso said. "It's not all about greed. Some of these people have serious problems and need help."
Law enforcement officials from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo worked with the Tampa office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on the case, deputies said.
Wednesday's arrests came as the trial of a doctor accused of prescribing undercover detectives enough addictive medication to be considered drug trafficking is wrapping up. A verdict on Dr. John Mubang, who runs a Seffner clinic and is still licensed, could come today.
A day earlier, Ronald David Kimball, 53, was arrested on charges of doctor-shopping and trafficking in oxycodone. Pinellas deputies said Kimball visited three Florida doctors a month, including one in Winter Park, to get thousands of OxyContin and oxycodone pills. Several of the doctors alerted authorities.
On Tuesday morning, an Indian Shores doctor called deputies to tell them Kimball was back. When deputies arrived, Kimball ran toward a condo complex. After a 45-minute search, he was found hiding under a bridge, deputies said.
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected].