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In Florida, Prescription Drug Deaths Outpace Those from Illegal Drugs

Jun 16, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Prescription drugs have replaced cocaine and other illicit substances as the leading cause of drug abuse deaths in Florida, a new study says.   Despite this, the state has no prescription drug monitoring program, and the authors of the study say Florida must do more to curb the abuse of legal medication.

The study, conducted by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, involved an analysis of 168,900 autopsies performed in 2007.  The researchers found that the rate of deaths caused by prescription drugs was three times the rate of deaths caused by all illicit drugs combined. Cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines caused 989 deaths, it found, while legal opioids like Oxycontin caused 2,328 fatalities. The study also found that while the number of people whose deaths involved heroin increased 14 percent in 2007, to 110, deaths related to the opioid oxycodone increased 36 percent, to 1,253.

Drugs containing benzodiazepine, such as Valium, were implicated in 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).

Unfortunately, Florida is not alone.  According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, around seven million Americans are abusing prescription drugs -- an increase of 80 percent in just six years. The Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that since 1995, the number of drug abuse-related emergency room visits involving pain relievers increased nationwide by 153 percent.

However, while 38 other states have passed laws allowing for the monitoring of oft-abused prescription drugs, Florida has made little progress in developing such legislation.  The report makes it clear that lax oversight is allowing Florida's legal drug abuse problem to grow out of control.  For instance the absence of a prescription drug monitoring program means doctors cannot determine if a patient has been able to receive more than one prescription for a medication from multiple doctors.  

In addition to a monitoring plan, Florida law enforcement officials say the state also needs to find a way to crack down on illegal internet sales of prescription drugs and to encourage doctors and pharmacists to identify potential abusers.

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