RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Florida has become the epicenter for a new drug epidemic - this one involving prescription drugs. Each day in Florida, thousands of doses of powerful narcotics are dispensed in pain clinics, storefront operations known as pill mills. Federal, state and local authorities are working to drive those pill mills out of Florida.
But as NPRs Greg Allen reports from Miami, an important person is standing in their way: Florida Governor Rick Scott.
GREG ALLEN: Al Lamberti says when he started at the Broward County Sheriffs Department 30 years ago, the department was raiding crack houses and busting junkies.
Sheriff AL LAMBERTI (Broward County): Nowadays, the drug dealers are working out of strip malls.
ALLEN: Lamberti now heads the Sheriffs office in a county that includes Fort Lauderdale, a city that's become a destination, not just for spring breakers, but also for addicts and drug traffickers.
Sheriff LAMBERTI: We have more pain clinics in Broward County than Starbucks. We have more pain clinics than McDonald's. Theyre taking their toll.
ALLEN: Lamberti spoke at a news conference where he was joined by a dozen federal, state and local law enforcement officials. They were there to announce a major crackdown on Floridas pill mills, including more than 20 arrests and the seizure of more than $22 million in cash, exotic cars and real estate.
Doctors in Florida prescribe 10 times more oxycodone pills than every other state in the country, combined. People come from all over the Southeastern U.S. to see pain clinic doctors, who give them a quick exam, a prescription for a powerful painkiller; sometimes even filling the prescription on the premises.
DEA Special Agent Mark Trouville said over the past year, the joint law enforcement operation has made more than 300 undercover drug buys from pain clinics, and more arrests are coming.
Mr. MARK TROUVILLE (Special Agent, Drug Enforcement Agency): So if youre a clinic owner, or a doctor, or an employee, knowingly working at one of these illegal pill mills, we have probably bought dope from you. And we are probably coming to see you soon.
ALLEN: Trouville said one reason pill mills have proliferated here is because Florida, unlike most other states, lacks a system for monitoring drug prescriptions. That would help prevent doctor-shopping - people who travel from one clinic to another, buying hundreds of doses of prescription drugs.
In fact, Florida does have a prescription drug database. After years of lobbying by law enforcement, the state legislature passed a bill last session to create one. But it didnt provide money to pay for it. A private foundation stepped in and began raising funds for the database. But recently, a leading state official has come out foursquare against it: Floridas Governor Rick Scott.
Governor RICK SCOTT (Republican, Florida): I dont support the database. I believe its an invasion of privacy. And I believe that, one, it appears that the money has been wasted.
ALLEN: An official with the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Foundation says the governors accusation is false, and that the group has already raised enough money to start up the state database.
In the last few weeks, a growing number of voices, both in Florida and outside the state, have called on Scott to drop his opposition to the drug monitoring program. Many of Scotts critics come from states with their own oxycodone epidemics, fueled by addicts and drug traffickers who make regular visits to Florida. Its a trip down Interstate 75 some now call the Oxy Express.
Kentuckys Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo is also a surgeon.
Lieutenant Governor DANIEL MONGIARDO (Democrat, Kentucky): I have friends that are E.R. doctors along I-75, and its a daily basis where somebody goes into an E.R. off I-75 with an overdose. We had a 41-year-old mother who was in the backseat of a car coming back from Florida who overdosed, and she died.
ALLEN: In Florida, law enforcement authorities say the crackdown on pill mills will continue, but that they cant arrest their way out of the problem. Theyre calling for stricter regulation of doctors and funding for the statewide drug database. Now all they have to do is convince the governor.
Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.
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