A combination of tough new laws and a high-profile crackdown is chipping away at Florida's dubious distinction as the nation's leading illicit source of powerful prescription painkillers for drug addicts and dealers, federal and state officials said Wednesday.
New U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration figures show that the number of oxycodone pills purchased by Florida doctors dropped 97 percent from 2010 to 2011, mainly due to a state law that took effect July 1 banning clinics and doctors from dispensing them.
Yet the DEA numbers also show a 14 percent drop in Florida pharmacy purchases of oxycodone over the same time period, even counting a small increase in the first three months of 2011. The decline at pharmacies coincided with the takedown in February of a network of Broward County-based "pill mills" that used some 1,600 Internet sites to attract thousands of addicts and drug dealers.
About 85 people, including at least 13 doctors, have been arrested in South Florida over the past year on pill mill-related charges, according to federal prosecutors. U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said Wednesday at a prescription pill abuse summit in Lexington, Ky., that fewer people are coming from out of state to Florida to buy painkillers.
"I'm hoping to dry up this pipeline that we have between South Florida and Kentucky and Tennessee and Ohio," Ferrer said. "We're not going to let up."
Florida's efforts were further bolstered when the state last year finally launched a prescription drug monitoring program aimed at curbing doctor-shopping and tracking physicians who prescribe unusually large amounts of oxycodone and other painkillers. The program had to overcome opposition from Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who questioned it as an intrusion into privacy and possibly ineffective.
Taken together, the actions "sent a clear message to others that the diversion of (legal) pharmaceutical painkillers would not be tolerated," said Mark R. Trouville, chief of the Miami DEA office. "These statistics indicate that the message has been delivered."
In yet another statistic, in 2010, 90 of the nation's top 100 physicians who purchased oxycodone were located in Florida, In 2011, that number dropped to just 13 of the top 100.
The numbers come from a DEA system that tracks controlled substances such as oxycodone at every stage from manufacturer until they are dispensed. The numbers are still staggering in Florida — nearly 500 million oxycodone doses were purchased by doctors and pharmacies in 2011 — but it's clear on the street that things are changing.
Tina Reed, an anti-pill mill activist in Fort Lauderdale whose son is a recovering addict, said groups still stage protests and pickets outside pain clinics. But there aren't as many as a few months ago, she said.
"It isn't over, but it has definitely improved," Reed said. "There are still pill mills out there, but they are trying to fly under the radar."
According to the Justice Department, prescription drug abuse contributes to nearly 40,000 deaths each year and almost $200 billion in annual health care costs. About 7 million people use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes and about one in seven teenagers abuse prescription drugs, the department says.
Overdoses due to oxycodone and similar drugs are now more common than those from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine combined, Justice Department figures show.