Two weeks ago, Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent announced the arrests of 23 people in a prescription drug fraud ring. It concluded a four-month investigation that overlapped with the April circuit court sentencing hearings of two adults who provided fatal methadone doses to other people. Two days ago, a grand jury indicted 19-year-old Stephen Horne of Ridge Manor and his Holiday acquaintance, accusing them of shooting and killing Horne's father for 22 oxycodone pills and cash.
Sadly, these are just small samples of a prescription drug abuse epidemic. Drug deaths are becoming an all-too-common occurrence with the county on pace to see 50 prescription drug overdoses this year. Already, officials have said more people had died of drug-related reasons (135) than traffic accidents (127) during the past 3 1/2 years in Hernando.
Last year, officers from the Sheriff's Office told the state medical board that 90 percent of the narcotics cases handled in Hernando are for prescription drugs; oxycodone is the most abused drug on the county and that every category of crime including home invasions and robberies is affected by prescription drug abuse.
Likewise, state data shows illicit drug use among young adults in Hernando higher than the Florida average and, most alarmingly, across the state six people die every day from a prescription drug overdose.
Law enforcement shouldn't have to go it alone. The Hernando County Commission should join other local governments tightening controls on the free-wheeling dispensing of prescription narcotics.
Already, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and the cities of Tampa and Bradenton have adopted or are pursuing temporary bans on new clinics. Last week, Pasco commissioners wisely agreed with Rep. John Legg that a moratorium should be considered at least until Oct. 1, the effective date for new state rules if Gov. Charlie Crist signs legislation into law as expected.
The bill on the governor's desk, sponsored by Legg, R-Port Richey, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, prohibits so-called pill mills from dispensing more than a three-day supply of prescription drugs to customers paying with cash, credit card or check. The intent is to separate legitimate patients using private, government or worker's compensation insurance from the cash-carrying drug mules.
An accounting provided by the federally funded initiative, Pasco Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, listed 11 pain management clinics in Hernando County, but it does not differentiate between what may be legitimate medical practices and those that may be dispensing large quantities of narcotics on site to cash-paying clients.
The ease with which out-of-state residents can legally obtain prescription narcotics to sell back home turned Florida into the center of the pill-peddling industry and brought a call for legislative reform in consecutive years. The key to this year's bill is the limit on quantities that can be dispensed on site, though there are fears unscrupulous clinics will circumvent the law by charging their cash-paying customers an exorbitant fee for office visits then dispensing the drugs free of charge.
The potential exploitation of that loophole is why it is imperative for local governments to reinforce the state efforts. Failure to act will invite an unwanted invasion, Legg predicted.
"It's like rats on a sinking ship. They're fleeing and going to other areas and if we don't pass an ordinance, crime will flow to the path of least resistance,'' he said.
With other counties stepping up their resistance, Hernando commissioners would be wise to follow suit. Inviting even more illegal drug trade into the county is irresponsible.