Statewide task force will focus on shutting down ‘pill mills’

As part of my responsibilities as lieutenant governor, I oversee the Governor’s Office of Drug Control. Together with the Statewide Drug Policy Advisory Council, we use a three-pronged statewide strategy of prevention, treatment and law enforcement to limit the devastation caused by substance abuse in Florida’s families and communities.

As I have met with sheriffs and law enforcement officers throughout the state, they have emphasized the need to reduce illicit drug activity by cutting off the supply of illegal drugs, including legal prescription drugs used for illegal purposes.

Six Floridians die each day from a prescription drug overdose — five times as many deaths as from all illegal drugs combined. In fact, the number of drug overdose deaths in Florida increased by 77 percent from 2003 to 2008, and each one involved at least one prescription drug.

Often the illegal prescription drug of choice is oxycodone, a very strong narcotic commonly prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain. Nearly all of the top 50 prescribers of oxycodone in the United States are in Florida.

At the heart of this scourge are so-called pill mills, which are often advertised as “pain clinics.” However, pill mills can also be doctors’ offices, clinics or health care facilities that routinely conspire in prescribing and dispensing controlled substances outside the scope of standard medical practice, or otherwise violate prescription-drug laws.

These so-called pain clinics have sprung up at alarming rates. Every three days, a new one opens in Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to a recent Broward County grand jury report. In the last six months of 2008 alone, such clinics dispensed nearly 9 million doses of oxycodone in South Florida — the equivalent of more than two doses for every man, woman and child in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Those who own and operate pill mills have no medical interest in actually treating pain or other medical conditions. Rather, they push pills simply for greed, similar to more “traditional” drug dealers. Florida’s pill mills are now the primary source of the unchecked flood of painkillers and anti-anxiety medications that fuel a large percentage of drug-related crime, addiction, hospitalizations and overdoses in our state. But this flood of diverted drugs doesn’t stop at our state’s boundaries; Florida’s pill mills supply huge amounts of prescription drugs to other states such as Kentucky and West Virginia.

To stem this flood and safeguard Florida’s future health and safety, Gov. Charlie Crist signed legislation last year creating the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. This legislation lays the groundwork for regulatory oversight of pain clinics. While this law is an important tool in the fight against prescription drug diversion, more must be done — and done quickly — to stop the tidal wave of prescription-drug-related crime, addiction and death.

Governor Crist and I remain committed to doing everything possible to protect Floridians, as well as our fellow Americans, from unscrupulous pill pushers and criminals who profit from prescription drug diversion.

Individuals running criminal enterprises must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. To aid our efforts, I will be leading an interagency Statewide Prescription Drug Task Force of local, state and federal law-enforcement officials, state agencies and medical associations that will combine their resources and develop a coordinated plan of action during the coming months to crack down on pill mills throughout the state.

Too many Floridians have lost their lives because of prescription drug abuse. We must take action at all levels to eliminate criminal pill mill enterprises throughout Florida and protect the quality of life that we hold so dear in the Sunshine State. Florida’s future depends on it.

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