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Friday, Jul 25, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: War on pill mills working, but with unintended effects

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Florida used to have some of the flimsiest regulations in the country against so-called pill mills that dispense powerful pain medications by the bagful. Because of those weak laws, couriers from states like Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio would turn interstates 75 and 95 into drug-trafficking superhighways.

Runners would start in South Florida, bouncing from clinic to clinic to fill their vans with thousands of opiates such as Oxycontin. They would head back north to sell pills they had purchased for about 11 cents each for as much as $80 apiece. It was a multimillion-dollar operation, and the shuttles operated virtually nonstop.

Tampa was one of the hubs for this illicit activity. That began to change about three years ago, when the state and city introduced laws to crack down on pill mills. On balance, the campaign is working.

There has been an unintended consequence, though, as some addicts continue to chase the high denied. Big spikes in heroin use have been reported in some parts of the state, while closer to home some are turning to the pain drug Dilaudid and other substances.

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"We have seen a slight increase in heroin use in the Tampa Bay area, but nothing out of the ordinary," said Sgt. Rick Mills of the Tampa Police Department.

"We have definitely seen an increase in crystal meth. We don't know if that's directly related to the crackdown on pill mills, but we can tie some of that back."

Just a few years ago, there were more than 200 pain clinics in Tampa and Hillsborough County. They were fertile ground for those hooked on powerful narcotics.

That began to change in 2009, when the state and the city of Tampa introduced strict guidelines for how these medications are dispensed.

There were 47 pain clinics in the city limits of Tampa when the crackdown started; there are now 24, and ongoing investigations could reduce that number.

"By far, pill heads are the worst addicts," said Mills, who has worked in the narcotics division since 1998. "They are strung-out zombies."

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If you think of addicts as strictly low-class or homeless people, guess again.

"It's everybody," Detective Mark Detrio said. "You see upper-class people, or college kids who didn't put two-and-two together."

"Oxy is nothing but synthesized heroin," Mills added. "I tell them, 'Bro, you're a heroin addict.' They can't believe it when I tell them that. Some of them start to cry."

But that addiction is powerful and can drive some to look for alternatives if their regular source is cut off. That's an accepted part of the fight in the narcotics division. Sometimes, it's a game of whack-a-mole - reducing one problem creates another problem. There is evidence, though, that the tide is turning.

"It's not a single picture as much as it is a collage," Mills said. "It's a piece here, a piece there. The medical examiner sent me an email and said, 'You must be doing something right. Deaths are down.'"

That's called success.

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