/publications/issue/2010/August2010/DrugDiversionandAbuse-0810

Drug Diversion and Abuse: Florida's Prescription Drug Epidemic

Author: Cmdr John Burke

The Sunshine State is battling back with a prescription monitoring law to combat prescription drug deaths and illegal transportation of medicines.

The St. Petersburg Times recently cited a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that indicates that oxycodone was responsible for the death of more Floridians than ever, causing 1185 deaths in 2009. This is a 26% increase from 2008 and an incredible 249% increase since 2005.

This report confirms what law enforcement is experiencing in the Midwest states—the fact that Ft. Lauderdale is not the only area of Florida with overprescribing pain clinics. The St. Petersburg district, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties, led the list with 197 deaths, while the Ft. Lauderdale district had 161 deaths related to oxycodone in 2009. The Tampa district reported 128 deaths, making the St. Petersburg-Tampa area responsible for 325 oxycodone deaths in 2009. In addition, Pinellas and Pasco counties led the list of methadone (117) and hydrocodone (45) deaths in 2009. As Broward County begins to crack down on their pain clinics, it is natural that the problem would move north into the St. Petersburg-Tampa area.

This confirms the trend that law enforcement in the Midwest is seeing, as van loads of prescription drug seekers have changed their target from the pain clinics in southern Florida to those on the west coast of Florida. Prescription vials are increasingly showing up in the hands of Midwesterners traveling to the St. Petersburg-Tampa area, who then have some contact with law enforcement when they return.

Until they arrive home and sell their drugs, the pills are in appropriate containers obtained from the clinics as they travel, leaving law enforcement no justification for seizure of the drugs or arrests of these subjects.

Also interesting in the report is the fact that the Florida Medical Examiner’s office reported that 2488 people died from prescription drugs in 2009—an average of 7 deaths per day. Although oxycodone led the list with 1185, benzodiazepines were a close second with 1099 overdose deaths. It is easy to forget that this class of prescription drugs, not just painkillers, is also responsible for large numbers of overdose deaths.

Although this problem seems to have drifted north and west in Florida, the good news is that Florida has passed a prescription drug monitoring law and is in the process of working out the details for a program that is desperately needed in the state. Unfortunately, some of these deaths could have been prevented if Florida had passed this bill several years ago when it was in front of the legislature on 2 separate occasions.

The sad story of prescription drug abuse in the Sunshine State is not a new one, and the wheels of legislative work often turn slowly. The hope, however, is that with an effective prescription monitoring program that allows quick and easy access for law enforcement, the problem can be significantly reduced.

The prescription monitoring programs that have had the most success are those that allow quick and easy access to law enforcement. Prescribers and dispensers are not cops. Although their cooperation is essential, this part of the issue falls on law enforcement’s shoulders. They need to take the lead in this area, but will not be nearly as effective without easy access to this system. Requiring a subpoena or search warrant to obtain prescription profiles is not allowing easy access.

If law enforcement can do their part and collaborate with prevention and the rehabilitation community, the problem can be reduced effectively, and lives will be saved in Florida and all over the country.


Cmdr Burke is commander of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad. Cmdr John Burke Florida’s Prescription Drug Epidemic Legal focus Drug Diversion & Abuse Cmdr Burke is a 40-year veteran of law enforcement and the current president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. He can be reached by e-mail at burke@choice.net, via the Web site www.rxdiversion.com, or by phone at 513-336-0070.