Out-of-state drug dealers and addicts are traveling long distances to obtain pain pills at clinics in Florida, which has lax oversight of prescription drugs.
The unwanted tourism alarms state officials, who have watched deaths from prescription pain medication skyrocket in recent years. In 2005, such prescription drugs as hydrocodone, methadone and oxycodone contributed to more overdose deaths than all other narcotics combined, according to Florida medical examiners.
Despite the dangers, Florida lacks a system for tracking prescription drugs. That, according to law enforcement officials, makes it a haven for addicts and "pill mills," where doctors churn out prescriptions without thoroughly examining patients.
The problem was noted in a national drug threat assessment released Nov. 15 by the U.S. Department of Justice. The report outlined the "drug run" phenomenon in South Florida, saying residents of states with prescription monitoring "have in some cases turned to traveling to nearby states ... to illegally obtain pharmaceuticals."
That was the case for more than two dozen people from Kentucky who drove 1,000 miles each way to see doctors in Palm Beach County and Fort Lauderdale. They came by the van-load in 2005 and early 2006, returning with OxyContin, Endocet, Percocet, Methadose -- drugs that were more difficult to get at home, federal prosecutors said.
Eight people involved in the trips have pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges in Palm Beach federal court, and several more are being tried in Kentucky state courts on drug-related crimes. The Fort Lauderdale medical office that supplied some of their prescriptions also is being investigated.
Drugs prescribed by Florida doctors caused the deaths of five people in Kentucky, according to prosecutors.
"We've seen people coming from all over the Southeast United States," said Rick Zenuch, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who monitors drug-related trends.
As of June, 32 states had adopted prescription-tracking programs to curb problems such as those in Florida, the most populous state without such a law.
Though each system has slightly different rules, its primary goal is to identify forged prescriptions and to expose so-called doctor shoppers who visit multiple physicians and pharmacies to get drugs.
The programs generally require doctors to submit information on prescriptions to a centralized database. When an order is filled, the pharmacist also sends an electronic record.
If a doctor or pharmacist notices a problem in a patient's file, they can contact law enforcement or state health officers.
The effectiveness of Kentucky's system has driven illicit drug seekers to surrounding states, including Indiana, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Those states have since created tracking programs, said Danna Droz, a former administrator of Kentucky's system.
In 2004, Florida's Legislature seemed poised to jump on the bandwagon. OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma agreed to pay the state $2 million to cover start-up costs. But key legislators blocked a vote on the proposal, citing its annual $2.8-million price tag and patient privacy concerns.
Dr. Rafael Miguel of the University of South Florida called the inaction "infuriating and depressing."
"You have to provide Florida doctors with tools so they can safely prescribe these medications and know they're in the right hands," Miguel said. "Right now doctors are being made unwilling and unknowing participants in the drug trade."