The prescription drug epidemic's path of least resistance is charging to Hernando County and the Sheriff's Office wants a new roadblock at the county line. Following the lead of the city of Brooksville and multiple counties in the region, the Hernando Commission again will be asked to ban new pain management clinics from opening. The commission discussed such a moratorium in June 2010, but never acted because of pending state legislation. Implementing the full requirements, however, is now in limbo because of separative legislative action that is holding up new state agency rules. Others fear the gubernatorial shutdown of the Office of Drug Control will exacerbate enforcement difficulties.
Absent action in Tallahassee, it is imperative to act locally and Sheriff Al Nienhuis plans to ask the commission to do so. In an interview Thursday, Nienhuis labeled prescription drug abuse the top law enforcement issue facing Hernando.
Pain management clinics, with on-site pharmacies accepting cash payments, are the main supply line for oxycodone — the most abused drug in Hernando — and other prescription painkillers flooding the streets. In the last three months of 2010, four pain clinics registered to operate in Hernando County, bringing to 16 the number of clinics here. And there is no penalty for failing to register.
Seven people die every day in Florida from prescription drug overdoses. Local statistics are just as staggering:
• In Hernando County, six-month data from 2010 showed almost one death a week and the Sheriff's Office reported that more people had died of drug-related reasons (135) than traffic accidents (127) during a 42-month span.
• Ninety percent of the narcotics cases handled in Hernando are for prescription drugs and every category of crime including home invasions and robberies is affected by prescription drug abuse. It is illustrated by burglars walking by a home's expensive electronics and instead heading right to the medicine cabinet to look for drugs to steal, said Chief Deputy Mike Maurer.
• State data also show illicit drug use among young adults in Hernando higher than the Florida average.
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.
Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties adopted bans on new clinics, intending originally to keep new clinics from opening prior to Oct. 1 — the target effective date for new state rules.
Under the state law sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. John Legg, both Pasco County Republicans, so-called pill mills are prohibited from dispensing more than a three-day supply of prescription drugs to customers paying with cash, credit card or check. It is supposed to separate legitimate patients using private, government or worker's compensation insurance from the cash-carrying drug mules.
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 spurred the legislative action. However, loopholes exist. In Pasco, a felon opened a suspected pain management clinic in Wesley Chapel — complete with a security guard for the parking lot — under the guise of an urgent care center.
The delay in the state rules and the potential circumventing of the Legislature's intent makes it imperative for commissioners to reinforce the state effort. Failure to act will invite an even greater invasion of the drug trade into Hernando County as clinic operators flee regulatory scrutiny in neighboring locales.