City targets illegal prescription drug trade
CINCINNATI, Ohio (CNN) -- Nearly every day, in every city and state in the United States, prescription drugs are being diverted from their legal use.
"Thirty percent of the overall drug problem in America is prescription drugs," said Sgt. Kerry Rowland of the Cincinnati Police Department.
As commander of America's only full-time drug diversion unit, Rowland should know. For 10 years, law enforcement officials said, it has set a national standard, tracking almost 22,000 bogus prescriptions and keeping a steady inventory of what drug sells for how much on the street.
For instance, there's one muscle relaxant that sells for $3 to $4 a tablet on the street. Some addicts combine it with the painkiller Vicodin at $6 a tablet. Together, police explained, they create a heroin high that lasts for hours for less than $10.
Focus on health workers
As in any major city, Cincinnati's drug diversion problem isn't limited to an open-air market in a single neighborhood. It's everywhere there are people, anywhere you find a hospital, pharmacy or doctor's office.
The unit has focused on doctors, nurses and hospital workers who divert drugs for their own use. Of 250 felony arrests in 1999, 30 percent involved health care professionals.
"We arrested a health professional every seven days and once every 10 days, a nurse was arrested," Rowland said.
One such woman, a nurse for 21 years, is an alcoholic who stole Demerol from hospital supply cabinets. She has been arrested twice.
"You're horrified. You're absolutely, totally horrified. Your whole life comes crashing down. Your secret's out that you've tried so hard to hide," she said.
Even an honest prescription can make a physician an unwitting accomplice to the problem.
'On the back burner'
The street trade in prescription drugs is supplied by doctor-shoppers: people who visit a dozen doctors a day, get prescriptions for specific drugs, then sell those drugs illegally.
"They'll go to doctors' offices and steal prescription pads, and once they get those prescription pads, many times they're off and running," Rowland said.
Drug diversion experts said despite the size of the problem, police departments across the country dedicate few resources to fight it.
"Their unit commanders want them to target the illicit street drugs -- the heroin and cocaine -- so that the pharmaceutical drugs are definitely put on the back burner," said Charlie Cichon of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators.
Experts like Cichon say if Cincinnati is arresting health care workers so frequently, just think how bad the problem is in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas -- none of which has a special unit to target drug diversion.
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