The culmination of a 10-month drug investigation called "Operation Pill Poppers" was impressive: 74 suspects were identified, 150 counts of Doctor Shopping, otherwise known as "Withholding Information from a Practitioner," were filed and 55,006 pills, with a street value of approximately $750,000, were seized. For the complete story, check out the article in today's St. Petersburg Times.
However, by the end of Monday's six-hour roundup, staged at a closed Egg Platter restaurant on U.S. Highway 19 in Pinellas Park, dozens of suspects remained at large. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) and the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) arrested eleven (11) suspects that day, plus nine (9) from the week before.
"Operation Pill Poppers," announced to the public as it was happening, was designed partly to raise awareness of the growing prescription drug problem in the Tampa Bay area (which this author has written extensively about over the last year). But it also highlights how tricky it is to curb such crimes when the addiction is so powerful, the drugs aren't illegal and the law hasn't caught up with the problem.
Law enforcement agencies throughout Florida have been gradually shifting their focus from the "more traditional" drugs like marijuana and cocaine to a completely different animal that bears little resemblance to yesterday's Drug Offenses. During "Operation Pill Poppers" 10-month Pinellas County investigation, narcotics detectives relied heavily on intelligence gathered from pharmacists and doctors.
Putting aside the thousands of lives that have been shattered by this recent wave of prescription drug abuse, the most sobering statistic lies in the number of recent deaths in Pinellas County.
Just last month (January 2010), three (3) women and one (1) man who had cases in Pinellas County's Drug Court died from prescription drug overdoses, said Shannon Loveday, who manages the Drug Court.
A 2008 St. Petersburg Times investigation found that prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs kill about 500 people a year in the Tampa Bay area, triple the number killed by illegal drugs such as Cocaine and Heroin.
Moreover, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) narcotics division has doubled from four (4) detectives to eight (8), with two (2) added supervisors. The hope, according to authorities, is to prevent Pinellas County from turning into Broward County, which is known as a magnet for out-of-state prescription drug buyers.
Because a statewide prescription computer system does not yet exist in Florida, as it does in several other states, Doctor Shopping and prescription fraud is rampant. Doctors still use handwritten paper prescriptions, which are easy to forge, and law enforcement agencies must primarily rely on pharmacists to report suspicious customers.
Last year, Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives wrapped up a 10-month investigation called "Operation Bad Medicine" with more than 100 arrests. A doctor, two (2) nurses and three (3) medical assistants were among them.
After years of debate, the Legislature approved a bill last year creating a database to track prescription drug sales in an effort to curb Doctor Shopping and illegal Drug Trafficking. But the details of the monitoring program still need to be worked out before it is implemented.
Right now, Florida is the largest of sixteen (16) states without such a program.
And, in the eyes of this author, law enforcement will not make major strides in curbing our County's prescription drug abuse problem until such an electronic database is created to notify doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement officers that someone is obtaining and/or filling multiple prescriptions, for the same or a similar drug, in the same month. Until then, we will see more crime, more overdoses and unfortunately - more needless deaths.
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