Tampa Bay: Ground zero for prescription drugs

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008

The Tampa Bay area has played a leading role in making the Internet the top source of illegal prescription drugs in the United States.

A few years ago, Tampa Bay had the most illegal Internet pharmacies in the nation. The Drug Enforcement Administration has closed 19 of them.

"It was really ground zero for illegal and illicit distribution of prescription drugs in the country," says Mark Trouville, special agent in charge of the DEA in Florida.

Trouville said none of the nation's top 10 internet pharmacies are now here, but they have popped up in other states and countries.

The pharmacies often split their operations in different locations. They'll have a doctor in one place, a pharmacy in another, a warehouse and distribution center in another. This makes it difficult for local or state police to do anything about them.

"There should be a federal law that covers that," says Jennifer Pritt, of the FDLE's office of statewide intelligence. "You can't just have a hodgepodge of states."

Trouville said Congress is working on legislation that could strengthen enforcement efforts.

Illegal internet pharmacies sometimes use stolen license numbers to fill prescriptions. Or, they may employ doctors in financial trouble to approve prescriptions with a mouse click. The doctors will be paid a few dollars a client.

"If we have a doctor sitting in his attic on his computer screen writing 1,000 prescriptions a day for people he never saw," Trouville says, "is anyone with common sense going to say that's good medical practice?"

New Port Richey resident Dawn Ryan knows the ease of ordering drugs on the Internet.

The 37-year-old mother awoke one morning with back pain and soon became addicted to prescription drugs. She forged prescriptions, then turned to the Internet.

She got OxyContin from an on-line source in Mexico. She never met or talked with a doctor. She simply had to fill out a short form about her medical history. The pills arrived a few days later.

"They just ship them. It's ludicrous," said Ryan, who got clean in treatment after a drug arrest.

Investigators say even a child with a parents credit card can easily order drus on-line.

Says Trouville: "We have brought the drug dealer right into the bedroom."