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Crime & Courts

Database, drug collections limit prescription abuse

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:18 PM
TAMPA -

Local law enforcement agencies asked people to turn in unwanted or expired prescription pills in an effort to prevent the narcotic-grade medication from being abused.

Last weekend, people listened, turned out in droves and dropped off more than 1,500 pounds of pills at 13 locations across the Tampa area, officials said.

The program is just one tool in a continuing effort to stem the illicit flow of painkillers and clean up Florida's reputation as the epicenter of prescription pill abuse, authorities said.

"We've taken baby steps in these two years," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "When you have these types of programs, it only helps in fighting this war."

Fasano said the state's prescription drug database, launched last year, is another.

Operators of the online database have struggled for money to keep it running, Fasano said, but the system has been effective so far in screening patients to ensure they're not doctor-shopping – visiting physicians in a short time to collect prescriptions for pain pills.

"It has been extremely successful," said Fasano, who sponsored the Senate bill that created the database. "We have 52 million prescriptions in the system."

Together, disposal programs and drug databases help authorities tackle prescription pill abuse, a growing problem nationwide, said Marianne Ivey, a pharmacy professor at the University of Cincinnati.

"Multiple strategies will reduce the problem," said Ivey. "But it won't happen overnight."

Ivey said a disposal program in Cincinnati and surrounding areas collected 3½ tons of pills earlier this year.

Ohio is in the middle of what authorities call the Oxycontin Express, a route where pills were illegally distributed, starting in Florida and going north on Interstate 75.

"We're on the path between Florida and Michigan, all the way to Canada," she said. "We were on the receiving end of the path of pill mills, which evidence suggest Florida had the most of."

Over the past few years, Florida earned a reputation as the nation's main hub for the illicit trafficking of prescription pills. Before new laws were passed last year, so-called "pill mills," pain management clinics, pharmacies and shady physicians doled out massive doses of pills.

Visitors from other states would travel to Florida to buy pills such as oxycodone and hydrocodone then sell them in their home states at higher costs.

Fasano said disposal programs, tougher laws against pharmacies and drug monitoring systems will improve Florida's reputation.

"We were known as the pill mill state," Fasano said. "We had the Oxycontin Express. We are starting to diminish that reputation. In the next few years, you'll see Florida as a model state."

Fasano was concerned last week when he heard the foundation that funds that database only had enough money to keep the system going until January.

Since then, another grant has kicked in, enough to keep the database operational until June, said Sharon Kelley, vice chairwoman of the foundation that oversees funding for the drug monitoring program.

The program costs $500,000 a year. Gov. Rick Scott was against the database, calling it an invasion of patients' privacy, but backed off when state Attorney General Pam Bondi and other state officials supported the program.

As a compromise, lawmakers changed the language in the bills to allow the database to receive money only through donations and grants, not through taxpayers or pharmaceutical companies.

During its short lifespan, the database always seemed to have an expiration date, which irks Fasano.

"We have to keep finding ways to keep it going," he said. "We have a $70 billion budget. We're talking $500,000 a year to keep the monitoring program going."

Ellen Snelling, board member of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance, said the database and Saturday's disposal program is making a dent by continuing to raise awareness of pill abuse.

"The word is getting out," Snelling said. "It is pretty amazing. But that's just the tip of the iceberg."

Saturday's drug turnback initiative, dubbed Operation Medicine Cabinet, was a national initiative sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Hillsborough had four sites where people could drop off pills with no questions asked. Pinellas had nine locations.

Hillsborough deputies collected about 700 pounds of pills such as oxycodone and hydrocodone at two supermarkets on Saturday, Snelling said.

In Pinellas County, the sheriff's office and seven other agencies took back 847 pounds of pills, deputies said.


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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