ST. PETERSBURG — As a major with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in the 1980s, Jim Coats sounded the alarm that the crack cocaine epidemic sweeping the country was responsible for a surge in property crimes.
As chief deputy in the 1990s, he witnessed the surge in heroin deaths and trafficking charges in the county.
Still, he said Tuesday, nothing compares to the challenges facing law enforcement in regard to prescription drug abuse in the 21st century.
"I've never seen a drug problem as severe as the one we're facing now," said Coats, who has spent almost 40 years in law enforcement. "It touches all walks of life."
Coats was one of about 100 law enforcement officers from west-central Florida who attended a one-day prescription drug summit Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
The conference was put on by Purdue Pharma, a Stamford, Conn.-based pharmaceutical company that makes powerful pain medications including Dilaudid and OxyContin. A company spokeswoman said Tuesday she could not release annual sales figures for the privately owned company. But a November report by the Gale Group estimated Purdue's sales at $488 million in 2009.
The company was in the Tampa Bay area after identifying it as one of 10 regions throughout the country that has seen a spike in prescription drug abuse and related crimes, said Landon Gibbs, the company's director of corporate security.
"The goals are to share information about the issue and to help law enforcement prevent and solve crimes," Gibbs said.
In the Tampa Bay area, prescription overdose deaths doubled from 339 to 681 from 2005 to 2009, the last year for which statistics are available.
In 2009, 179 people overdosed on prescription drugs in Pinellas County — an average of one person every 49 hours.
In addition to the number of overdose deaths, the number of drug diversion cases and arrests in Pinellas County also have grown over the past two years.
Drug diversion refers to cases where prescription drugs are diverted for recreational or illicit use. In some cases, like one reported in Pinellas on Tuesday, drugs are being stolen from the homes of people with legitimate medical needs. Other cases include people who feign injuries or create fraudulent prescriptions to get medications. Some are doctor shoppers who go to a variety of doctors seeking pill prescriptions.
The Sheriff's Office made 243 drug diversion arrests in 2009, compared to 83 the year before.
Fueling the increase could be the increased resources that the department has put on the problem, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. Over the past two years, the number of detectives assigned to drug diversion cases grew from two to 13. A Sheriff's Office-led task force also includes four members from other agencies.
"Of course if you have more detectives assigned to follow up on these cases, you're going to find more cases and conduct more arrests," Barreda said.
In Pinellas, investigators are seeing small, loosely organized rings of traffickers who recruit others, sometimes transients, and pay them to get prescriptions, said Capt. Robert Alfonso, head of the Sheriff's Office narcotics division.
The recruit makes a small fee and ring members feed their addictions or sell the drugs for profit. The going rate for a pain pill in Pinellas County can be anywhere from $8 to $15 a pill, Alfsonso said, adding that the price is even higher in other parts of the country.
Tuesday's summit was closed to media so law enforcement officers would feel comfortable sharing information about current cases, said Gibbs, the company's security director.
Gibbs also said he planned to share information about RxPatrol, a Purdue-funded database designed to collect and analyze information about pharmacy robberies, with the law enforcement officers.
The database, he said, is credited with facilitating 103 arrests since its inception in 2003.
"We don't want people abusing our products or anyone else's products," he said.
Coats said he supports greater emphasis on treating addicts, some of whom want help but can't find it or afford it.
Alfonso predicts the problem will get worse before it gets better. For each doctor shopper taken off the street, another appears: "It's like shooting fish in a barrel."