By DAMIEN CAVE
MIAMI — From "Scarface" to "Miami Vice," Florida's drug problem has been
portrayed as the story of a single narcotic: cocaine. But for Floridians,
prescription drugs are increasingly a far more lethal habit.
An analysis of autopsies in 2007 released this week by the Florida Medical
Examiners Commission found that the rate of deaths caused by prescription
drugs was three times the rate of deaths caused by all illicit drugs
Law enforcement officials said that the shift toward prescription-drug
abuse, which began here about eight years ago, showed no sign of letting up
and that the state must do more to control it.
"You have health care providers involved, you have doctor shoppers, and then
there are crimes like robbing drug shipments," said Jeff Beasley, a drug
intelligence inspector for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which
co-sponsored the study. "There is a multitude of ways to get these drugs,
and that's what makes things complicated."
The report's findings track with similar studies by the federal Drug
Enforcement Administration, which has found that roughly seven million
Americans are abusing prescription drugs. If accurate, that would be an
increase of 80 percent in six years and more than the total abusing cocaine,
heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants.
The Florida report analyzed 168,900 deaths statewide. Cocaine, heroin and
all methamphetamines caused 989 deaths, it found, while legal opioids —
strong painkillers in brand-name drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin — caused
Drugs with benzodiazepine, mainly depressants like Valium and Xanax, led to
743 deaths. Alcohol was the most commonly occurring drug, appearing in the
bodies of 4,179 of the dead and judged the cause of death of 466 — fewer
than cocaine (843) but more than methamphetamine (25) and marijuana (0).
The study also found that while the number of people who died with heroin in
their bodies increased 14 percent in 2007, to 110, deaths related to the
opioid oxycodone increased 36 percent, to 1,253.
Florida scrutinizes drug-related deaths more closely than do other states,
and so there is little basis for comparison with them.
It has also witnessed several highly publicized cases in recent years that
have highlighted the problem. Only last year, an accidental prescription
drug overdose killed Anna Nicole Smith in Broward County.
Still, the state has lagged in enforcement. Thirty-eight other states have
approved prescription drug monitoring programs that track sales. Florida
lawmakers have repeatedly considered similar legislation, but privacy
concerns have kept it from passing.
As a result, federal, state and local law enforcement officials say, Florida
has become a source of prescription drugs that are illegally sold across the
"The monitoring plan is our priority effort, but that is not enough,"
William H. Janes, the Florida director of drug control, said in a statement
accompanying the study. He said Florida was also looking at ways to curb
illegal Internet sales and to encourage doctors and pharmacists to identify
Some local police departments have taken a more novel approach.
In Broward County on May 31, deputies completed a "drug takeback" in which
$5 Wal-Mart, CVS or Walgreens gift cards were distributed to 150 people who
cleaned out their medicine cabinets and turned in unused drugs in an effort
to keep them out of young people's hands.
"The abuse has reached epidemic proportions," said Lisa McElhaney, a
sergeant in the pharmaceutical drug diversion unit of the Broward County
Sheriff's Office. "It's just explosive."