Sales of the narcotic painkiller fell 20 percent last year at Florida pharmacies and other outlets, according to data released this week by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The main reason: Some of the area’s biggest pill mill operators and doctors were shut down or arrested, slowing a parade of out-of-state drug dealers and addicts seeking pain drugs, officials said.
“These traffickers are not coming down to Florida like they did before,” said David Melenkevitz, a spokesman at the DEA in Weston, home to a regional pill mill task force. “The medical professionals got the message, too: Either straighten out or we’re coming after you.”
Florida pharmacies and doctors sold about 498 million doses of oxycodone last year, down from a record 622 million in 2010.
The drop started after the February arrests of 23 people, including four doctors, in clinics from West Palm Beach to Miami. Another 32 people – 13 doctors – were arrested in August at a network of clinics owned by twins Christoper and Jeff George. In addition, state regulators have disciplined dozens of doctors for excessive pain pills over the past two years.
Oxycodone purchases fell more after the July 1 start of a state law that banned pain clinics and doctors from selling addictive drugs and toughened the penalties against those who overprescribe.
At the same time, the DEA pressured pharmaceutical distributors to stop selling to suspicious, high-volume pain clinics that were operating in South Florida, and later Central Florida and Tampa Bay.
Figures from the state Department of Heath showed 570 active pain clinics in the state last week – down from more than 1,300 in 2010. Broward had 73 and Palm Beach 40, less than half earlier totals.
South Florida pill mill experts said it’s too early to declare victory. Oxycodone is still the leading cause of overdose deaths in the state, and some of the addicts and dealers may simply be switching to other drugs, such as hydrocodone, said Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study & Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
The DEA has not detected any major switch, Melenkevitz said.
Said Hall, “We still [are not] dealing with the addiction, dealing with drug treatment and trying to save lives.”
A group for South Florida parents of overdose victims, Stop the Organized Pill Pushers, still finds pain clinics to picket every month – though some of its past targets have shut down, co-founder Janet Colbert said. She criticized the DEA for allowing drug companies to manufacture 10 times as much oxycodone as they did 15 years ago.
“No one is biting that bullet,” Colbert said.
Yet Nova’s Hall said Florida crackdown has dried up the amount of oxycodone sold by street dealers, driven up the price and made the drug less attractive to abusers. An 80 mg tab of the narcotic now costs $80 on the street, compared to $20 a year or two ago, he said.
Florida’s four-month-old Prescription Drug Monitoring Program also has made an impact, officials said. The database lets pharmacists and doctors look up whether a patient has been buying large numbers of painkillers and other controlled substances from multiple sources.
The database acts as a deterrent because doctors and drug abusers know their actions can be tracked, said Bruce Grant, Florida’s drug czar until Gov. Rick Scott abolished the office last year.
DEA officials said they also have documented significant increases in doctors buying oxycodone in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, suggesting buyers who once came to Florida are turning elsewhere.
The main spokesman for Florida’s pain clinics scoffed at the DEA’s figures.
Paul Sloan, president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers, said the DEA has been overstating the extent of oxycodone abuse and trafficking in the state, and demonizing bona fide pain clinics.
The oxycodone crackdown achieved little more than “crucifying the legitimate pain patient who needs medication” by drying up the supply and forcing some into painful withdrawal, Sloan said.
The new DEA figures, said Sloan, are “a joke” that lets the DEA “declare a phony victory.”