Florida turns tide on prescription drug abuse

Florida can celebrate several major milestones in the struggle to contain the state’s prescription drug abuse and pill mill epidemic. Striking new evidence exposes the depth and depravity of this years-long nightmare. While doctors purchased some 46 million oxycodone tablets in 2010, that figure plunged to 1.2 million last year -- an astounding 97 percent drop.

A new state law that took effect July 1 prevents doctors from selling oxycodone, a powerful painkiller, and other narcotics directly from their offices -- typically in cash deals to walk-in drug abusers and traffickers masquerading as patients, often from out of state.

Overall statewide sales of oxycodone from pharmacies and doctors fell from 622 million doses in 2010 to some 498 million pills last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration also reported last week -- another promising indication that Florida is finally gaining the upper hand in the battle against this terrible scourge. In 2010 alone, oxycodone contributed to more than 1,500 drug overdose deaths, a staggering increase from the 350 victims in 2005.

The Manatee County death toll from 2010 reached 246, causing untold heartache among family and friends. When pain clinics began popping up around the county that dreadful year, the City of Bradenton wisely adopted a moratorium on new pill mills in May, soon followed by similar measures in Manatee County and Palmetto.

Florida finally awoke to this shameful situation several years ago, adopting a law establishing a prescription drug database that required doctors and pharmacies to report prescriptions and sales of powerful pain and anxiety medications. Still, some legislators and Gov. Rick Scott wanted to repeal the 2009 law, labeling the database a violation of privacy rights. Public safety and health priorities finally trumped that misguided concern, and the state launched the overdue Prescription Drug Monitoring Program this past September.

The database, designed to inform doctors and pharmacies about over-prescribed patients who obtained prescriptions from a variety of sources, now contains information on 26 million prescriptions. Not only does the monitoring system help prevent “doctor shopping” by patients, law enforcement can access the tool to uncover doctors and pharmacies that are prescribing and selling inordinate amounts of narcotic medications.

Investigations this past year brought indictments against dozens of pain clinic owners and doctors, including several from Manatee County. Fewer out-of-state drug abusers and dealers are flocking to the Sunshine State for easy scores. And Florida, once home to 90 of the nation’s top 100 physicians for writing oxycodone prescriptions, saw that number drop to 13 last year.

While prescription drug abusers and traffickers may be moving on to other substances, Florida can no longer be considered complicit in the mishandling of oxycodone and other legal narcotics -- a remarkable and quick turnaround.