Prescription drugs now kill more people than illicit drugs

A report in the Orlando Sentinel reveals a disturbing trend in the state of Florida that is part of a larger national epidemic: the growing number of people killed by prescription-drug overdoses.

According to the report, from January to June of this year, prescription-drug overdoses killed 1,270 people in Florida. This represents a nine-percent increase from the same 6-month period in 2009 when 1,157 people died from prescription-drug overdoses.

“State medical examiners continue to find prescription drugs more often in the bodies of the dead than illicit drugs, documenting the fatal consequences of the nation’s prescription-drug epidemic,” the Sentinel report said.

A statewide report issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that the potent painkiller oxycodone was alone responsible for killing more people than alcohol, cocaine, and heroine combined. Oxycodone and its cousin hydrocodone made a splash in the news years ago when radio personality Rush Limbaugh, a Florida resident himself, revealed on the air that he was addicted to the painkillers in the midst of an investigation into whether he had violated the state’s doctor shopping laws to obtain the drugs.

Law enforcement agencies and local governments throughout the state are ramping up efforts to fight illicit prescription drug abuse. One of the problems is the state’s numerous pain-management clinics, often called “pill mills,” where doctors write prescriptions for powerful painkillers in exchange for cash.

“It is no longer just illegal narcotics like cocaine and heroin being bought and sold on our streets. Drug dealers have made legal narcotics a top-shelf product,” Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told the Sentinel.

“Even when used correctly by a prescribing physician, these are potent drugs. When abused, overused and mixed, they can become deadly,” Bailey said.

According to Bruce Grant, director of the Office of Drug Control, “This new drug crisis rivals the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. We must get agencies at all levels of government along with our communities and our medical professionals to step up and take action.”

Federal investigators say nearly 7 million Americans abuse prescription drugs — more than the total number of Americans abusing cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and other illicit drugs. The number of prescription drug abusers has increased 80 percent in the last six years.