TALLAHASSEE — Deaths caused by prescription drugs in Florida have decreased for the first time in nearly a decade, state officials said Wednesday.
Overall, prescription drug deaths fell by about 6 percent in 2011. And deaths caused by oxycodone — an often-abused prescription painkiller — decreased nearly 18 percent, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report.
FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said the report gives Florida many reasons to be proud.
"State and local efforts are paying dividends in the fight against illegal pill mills," Bailey said. "The Drugs and Deceased Report reflects that Florida is moving in the right direction."
Officials attribute the decrease to several legislative and law enforcement efforts that came to a head in 2011.
In July 2011, a new state law forbade most doctors from dispensing prescription painkillers from their offices, and law enforcement ramped up investigations and made high-profile arrests, said Claude Shipley, who worked in the state's Office of Drug Control before Gov. Rick Scott shut it down.
Shipley also credited the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database, which came online in the final three months of the year. It allows doctors and pharmacists to see where and when their patients filled previous prescriptions, helping the medical professionals determine if the patients have a legitimate need.
However, a Tampa Bay Times investigation published earlier this month discovered that the vast majority of medical practitioners have never touched this much-touted database.
Nonetheless, it was put into use for the first time in 2011, Shipley said, and it likely had some impact.
Also, since the creation of seven regional drug enforcement strike forces in March 2011, there have been more than 3,300 arrests, 785,000 pills have been seized, almost $10 million in cash has been confiscated and 254 pill mills have been shut down, Bailey said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was surprised how quickly some of the legislation made a difference.
She said the drastic decline in oxycodone-related deaths, from 1,516 to 1,247, was cause for celebration.
"We have so far to go in this fight against drugs, but these numbers … in such a short time are truly remarkable," Bondi said at a news conference Wednesday.
Although overall prescription drug deaths fell in 2011, the state still has room for improvement when it comes to drug-related deaths, including both legal and illegal substances, Bailey said.
In 2011, there were 9,135 drug-related deaths, up 134 from 2010. Alcohol continues to be the No. 1 cause in drug-related deaths, and pharmaceuticals continue to cause more deaths than illegal drugs.
The drugs that caused the most deaths in 2011 were benzodiazepines (including Valium and Xanax), diazepam, cocaine and alcohol, as well as the painkillers oxycodone, methadone, morphine and hydrocodone.
Cocaine-, heroin- and alcohol-related deaths were all up in 2011, according to the report.
Often, other drugs and alcohol were found in the systems of deceased persons. Also, a portion of the deaths were classified as suicides. About 16 percent of oxycodone deaths and 25 percent of hydrocodone deaths were suicides, according to the report.
Bailey said there is anecdotal evidence that cutting off the pipeline for certain prescription drugs is causing addicts to look elsewhere.
"I will tell you there is speculation that it's a supply-and-demand issue," he said. "Some of the addicts, if you will, that we've blocked from the oxycodone have turned to these other drugs in their place, but we don't know that. At this point it's speculation."
Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong said the Department of Health has stepped up its efforts to identify and penalize doctors who enable drug addicts and has also used the drug monitoring program to clamp down on doctor-shopping.
In its first year, the database has been consulted over 2.5 million times, Armstrong said.
The department has also stepped up its oversight of pain-management clinics, causing the number of them to drop from 900 to 421, he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.