Actions to Shut Down “Pill Mills” Result in Increased Heroin Addiction
A tough new law designed to crack down on prescription drug abuse in Florida went into effect in September 2011. Florida’s problem with easily obtained drugs from “pill mills” is so pervasive that it is spilling over into adjoining states, and various senators and governors from these regions have urged Florida Gov. Rick Scott to implement the anti-drug legislation.
The United States is in an epidemic of prescription drug abuse with about seven million people using them for non-medical purposes, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Prescription drugs are now causing more deaths than illegal drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and the number of Americans dead from drug overdoses recently surpassed the number killed in automobile accidents.
Florida is the nation’s number-one supplier of prescription pain drugs used for nonmedical reasons. The most frequently abused of these drugs are OxyContin, Viocodin, and other potent painkillers. One of the most popular drugs now being abused is oxycodone, a painkiller related chemically to heroin. Of the 53 million oxycodone doses sold last year to medical practitioners, about 45 million were bought in Florida. Seven people die of prescription drug overdoses every 24 hours in Florida.
Dealers and drug tourists are traveling from other parts of the country to obtain prescription drugs in Florida that cost about a dollar a pill. They are able to sell them in their home states for $20-$30 a pill. Recently a man arrested in Connecticut with 8,000 pills in his possession admitted to police that he had gone to Florida 65 times in the past five months and obtained thousands of drugs each time. He was able to bribe airport authorities to let him smuggle the drugs into Connecticut.
The reason that drugs are so easy to get in Florida is that laws are lax enough that unethical doctors can set up “pain clinics” where people can obtain prescriptions simply by saying they are in pain, and without undergoing medical tests or examinations.
“People literally line up in the morning and wait for the doors to open, and then they swarm inside,” said Pinellas County Deputy Bob Gualtieri. “I hate to even call them doctors. Because they are not really doctors. They are people who hold a medical license, but they are not really practicing medicine, and you pay a cash fee. They’re drug dealers.”
Lt. Richard Pisanti of the Broward County’s Sheriff’s office said that people were doing drug deals right outside the pain clinics.
“We had burglaries, thefts of pills from cars, and one incident even resulted in murder,” he said.
The new legislation will require doctors to use electronic prescription pads or tamper-proof pads, and will increase penalties for overprescribing painkillers. Most doctors will be unable to dispense painkillers under the new regulations.
Florida legislators tried in the past to establish a drug database to keep track of which patients are obtaining which drugs and in what amounts. However, the state had trouble getting the measure funded, even though Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, offered to pay $1 million to set it up.
The new law establishes the Electronic Florida Online Reporting of Controlled Substances Evaluation, enabling doctors to request patients’ drug histories. Pharmacists, and anyone who prescribes or fills prescriptions for narcotic drugs will have seven days after dispensing these painkillers to report information to the data system. The system should cut down on “doctor shopping,” which refers to patients who go from one doctor or clinic to another in order to obtain pills.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy already have a national database that doctors or pharmacists can use to retrieve information on painkiller prescriptions from any state participating in the database. Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and 20 other states have agreed to participate in this database.
Many experts believe that national electronic databases for prescription drug abuse will only increase the problem of drug addicts turning to heroin. Because of earlier crackdowns, prescription drugs have already become more expensive and harder to get in certain parts of the country, including Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, and parts of the west coast. For example, a typical dose of heroin costs $25 compared to $80 for an oxycodone pill in places like Oregon, where there is stricter enforcement of drug laws. The manufacturers of OxyContin have also produced a new version of the drug that is harder to abuse, in that it cannot be smoked, snorted or injected.
Even before the new laws go into effect in Florida, heroin abuse already is starting to increase. In Palm Beach County, for example, the amount of heroin seized by authorities so far this year is three pounds, up from 20 grams last year. The latest national statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that heroin abuse increased 342% between 2004 and 2008. Heroin dealers are convincing more people that heroin is not only cheaper than prescription pills, but it is just as safe if you smoke it, rather than inject it, according to addiction expert Dr. Terry Alley.
If heroin abuse becomes more widespread in the United States, more Americans will develop liver or kidney diseases, skin abscesses, collapsed veins, and infections of the heart lining and heart valves. One of the biggest dangers will be increased numbers of people with HIV/AIDS, because most heroin addicts use needles. Since the HIV/AIDS virus is a blood-borne disease, the infection can be spread by sharing needles. Heroin used to be imported from Columbia or Asia, but the kind most prevalent today is a very pure variety from Mexico.