Florida's political leadership needs to get serious about confronting the epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Seven people die in the state each day from overdosing, and lax regulation of sham "clinics" has made the state a mecca for out-of-state narcotourists. • Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has taken several important steps since winning election in November. Law enforcement is doing its part. But Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature need to remove the roadblocks they put in place and help fight this scourge.
The easy and illegal dealing of prescription drugs presents the same crisis to public health and safety that crack cocaine did two decades ago. But unlike street drugs, prescription narcotics often latch onto victims who initially sought legitimate help for back pain or other injuries.
A report last month showed that prescription drug-related deaths in Florida were on the rise. Florida doles out more oxycodone than any other state. The racket is so rich that visitors from Ohio, Kentucky and other states truck down to Florida — where prescription drug sales go largely unchecked — to cycle through the doors of unscrupulous pain-management clinics, or so-called pill mills.
The flood of pills is staggering. A clinic in Lake Worth saw 250 patients a day. In South Florida, a new clinic opened up every three days in 2009. In the last month alone, Tampa police busted what they said was a narcotic racket that prescribed 2.4 million pills to 9,000 people over a seven-month period, and whose sales had a street value of $24 million to $60 million. A separate sting in Pinellas County this month resulted in the arrest of a doctor who authorities said tried to sell 10,000 oxycodone pills.
Bondi, to her credit, has given the problem her attention. A former Hillsborough County prosecutor, Bondi knows firsthand the impact prescription drug abuse is having — destroying families, causing addicts to rob and steal, clogging up the court system.
Even before taking office last week, she appointed former state Sen. Dave Aronberg, a former assistant attorney general, to a new post focusing on prescription drug abuse. And she made another good appointment in hiring Nick Cox as Florida's new statewide prosecutor. As a former prosecutor and director of state social services in the Tampa Bay area, Cox has seen both sides of the drug problem. Bondi has put together a solid team that knows how to work with local authorities. It will take a great level of cooperation between state and local law enforcement for any crackdown to work.
The governor and Legislature need to show the same urgency and common sense. Lawmakers' decision in November to hinder state agency rulemaking — and Scott's own executive order toward the same end last week — has put an indefinite hold on regulations the Legislature passed last year for pill mills. And the state still has not implemented the prescription drug registry that many other states have to track the dispensing of certain drugs from pharmacies and doctors. That alone has contributed greatly to Florida's attractiveness for narcotourists.
Scott and the Legislature need to realize that stronger oversight of prescriptions and pain management clinics is an essential step toward exposing physicians and sham clinics that conspire to dump boatloads of narcotics on the streets. Prescription drug abuse is a crime, and the costs in lives and taxpayer dollars have hit the crisis stage. The days of turning a blind eye are over.