"Prescription Tourists" Spread Painkillers

By Chrisanne Grise 07/09/12

People who obtain large volumes of pills in one state and sell them in another are a growing focus of the Rx drug battle.

Pills cross state lines with ease.
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As the fight against "pill mills"—clinics, doctors and pharmacies that prescribe powerful narcotics inappropriately—continues, states like Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia also have their work cut out for them as they combat "prescription tourists." These are people who travel to obtain huge volumes of painkillers, and then return to sell them on the street for as much as $100 a pill. The lucrative business involves drug dealers sending runners to states like Florida or Georgia, which are known for numerous pill mills. Once there, it's not hard to gain a prescription if you go to the right place. "They're like a swarm of locusts," says Richard Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency. "Once they have a script, they'll hit every pharmacy in the state trying to get them filled." Prescription tourists, who come from as far away as Arizona and Nebraska, play a part in making drug overdose the leading cause of accidental death in dozens of states. "The effect is the same effect as if they were coming out of our own pain clinics," says Aaron Haslam, who directs Ohio's anti-painkiller abuse efforts in the state's attorney general's office. "We have overdoses all over the state of Ohio because of it."

Stopping prescription tourism can be hard, as it crosses multiple state lines. But many law enforcement and prevention groups are trying anyway. Florida became a popular destination for drug runners because of a virtually unregulated pain clinic industry—but last March, Gov. Rick Scott finally created Florida's Drug Enforcement Strike Force Teams, which have now closed down 254 clinics. "This is something the state of Florida continues to focus on and our Strike Force Teams have been doing a wonderful job," Gretl Plessinger, communications director for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, tells The Fix.

But as Florida cracks down, the illegal trade has shifted up into Georgia, which had almost no pill mills three years ago, but is now home to as many as 150. So groups there have begun taking up the fight too: the Medical Association of Georgia has developed a campaign called Think About It—which aims to educate health care professionals, create legislation and provide safe places to dispose of prescription drugs. "It's not hard to figure out how to stop it if we can educate people to safeguard their drugs, take only what they need to avoid addiction and educate doctors not to over-prescribe," says Dallas Guy, who helped design the pilot program. Still, some feel that authorities are overreacting to a few doctors and clinics that participate in illegal activities. Paul Sloan, owner of several pain management clinics in Florida says, "We're dealing with a war on legitimate medications that's being dealt with like we're all cartels and drug lords." 

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices, AbsolutePunk.net, Chorus.fm, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.