The headlines have a common theme.
Federal agents charged a Port Richey Police officer with peddling the prescription pain killer oxycodone.
Five days later, a circuit court jury convicted a Pasco man of killing a 62-year-old woman as he stole her purse to feed his narcotics addiction. A key witnesses against Steve Cruz was the backseat passenger in the drug-induced joy ride who acknowledged she was stoned on Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, at the time of the robbery.
"I don't know a single day that doesn't go by where you don't read about a violent crime or a major incident beginning to occur because of the (prescription drugs) that are being pushed,'' said state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.
The phenomenon is not exclusive to Legg's west Pasco district. Health Department statistics show illicit drug use among young adults in Pasco and Hernando counties to be higher than the state average.
Hernando authorities began a crackdown of prescription drug abuse after the June 2008 overdose death of a 15-year-old Spring Hill boy. His own father had provided the pain killers and anti-anxiety medication because he wanted to teach the teenager "how to party right.'' Three months later, a 23-year-old man overdosed on methadone and died in a Spring Hill hospital, leading to a third-degree murder charge against his supplier — the mother of one of the young man's friends.
Legg called it a cancer that spread from South Florida's preponderance of pain clinics to the streets of the Tampa Bay region. The statistics are staggering. Nationally, the top 50 doctors writing prescriptions for controlled substances are all in Florida. And, every day, the state says, as many as nine people in Florida die from abuse of illegal prescription drugs.
"If that was the swine flu you'd have the national guard quarantining Florida,'' said Legg, who again this year is sponsoring legislation to try to curb illicit access to controlled substances.
Last year's effort — a proposed pilot program in Hernando and Pasco counties to encourage product stewardship in which pharmacies would take back and dispose of unused prescription drugs — went nowhere in Tallahassee. The aim is much grander in 2010. The governor, attorney general and multiple candidates for statewide office are calling for a clamp down on the source of the drugs — so-called pill mills in which nefarious doctors accept cash payments to write and fill prescriptions for pain killers, depressants and other commonly abused controlled substances.
Legg and Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, are sponsoring HB 225, the key provision of which is prohibiting doctors from dispensing more than a three-day supply of controlled substances to cash-paying patients. In other words, a van full of out-of-state residents can't drive to Florida, pick up a 90-day supply of you name it — oxycodone, hydrocodone, methodone — and then sell the pills on the streets.
The bill is scheduled to be heard Monday in the House Health Care Regulation Policy Committee, and a brouhaha is expected. The Florida Medical Association does not support the bill, Legg said, questioning it as interfering with physicians' scope of practice.
Sen. Mike Fasano, whose district includes portions of Pasco and Hernando counties, sponsored legislation in 2009 that created a statewide database for pain clinics and required them to register with the state in anticipation of future oversight including inspections. Fasano said 900 clinics had registered so far.
This year, he is the sponsor of SB 2272, which would prohibit convicted felons or doctors with prescription drug violations from owning pain clinics, require criminal background checks on clinic doctors and owners, and give the state Health Department the authority to search patient records for improper activity tied to acquiring controlled substances.
"My hope is we put enough regulatory control on pain management clinics and the good ones, the legitimate ones, will stick around and the fraudulent ones will just go out of business and leave the state,'' said Fasano.
In case you missed that, these are Republicans calling for more government regulation of the private sector. Indeed, it is a bi-partisan push.
"It's to a level where government's got to get involved,'' said Legg. "It's a health, safety welfare issue. It's no longer an occasional abuse, it's a chronic condition.'’