Drug dealers are finding creative ways around new laws that crack down on "pill mills" dispensing powerful pain killers such as oxycodone.
In Florida, hundreds of people tried to open pharmacies after the state barred doctors from dispensing the narcotics directly from their clinics and forced patients to fill their prescriptions at pharmacies. Others moved their operations to Georgia, state police and federal agents say.
"Traffickers adapt to situations," says Mark Trouville, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's field offices in Florida. "We knew once we put pressure on the pill mills, the wrong people would start opening pharmacies."
Florida was the nation's epicenter of prescription-painkiller distribution until the state enacted laws last year aimed at pill mills -- clinics where doctors perform cursory examinations on people with dubious injuries and dispense addictive painkillers.
Since then, the number of Florida doctors among the nation's top 100 oxycodone-purchasing physicians has fallen to 13 from 90 in 2010, DEA Special Agent David Melenkevitz says.
Applications for non-chain pharmacies jumped about 80(PERCENT) in 2011 -- to 381 -- from a typical year before the crackdown, Trouville says.
A pharmacy must register with the DEA and be licensed by the state to dispense controlled substances, which include many drugs that require a doctor's prescription. The DEA can deny a registration if an applicant has been convicted of a drug-related crime or agents find a connection to a pill mill or some other activity that poses a threat to public health and safety.
At least 37 pharmacy applicants withdrew their applications in 2011, Trouville says. "They feel the squeeze and move on," he says.
Nevertheless, questionable pharmacies are selling thousands of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to people recruited by drug dealers to get prescriptions from pain clinics.
"They're not selling Band-Aids and aspirin," Trouville says. "There's nothing but an empty room with a bullet-proof window."
Pharmacy applicants turned down in Florida often try their luck in Georgia, says Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency. Of new non-chain drugstore applications, about 95(PERCENT) have some connection to Florida, he says.
"The people come completely out of left field without any pharmacy background and open a pharmacy in a sleazy strip mall right down the road from a pain clinic," Allen says. "You do a cursory background on them, and they're living in a doublewide in Pembroke Pines, Fla."
The DEA is working with the state to inspect pharmacies, says Barbara Heath of the DEA's Atlanta field division. She says she expects problem pharmacies to emerge in North Carolina and Tennessee as they are pushed out of Georgia.