Prescription drug deaths decrease in Florida

Authorities worry medical marijuana could create new drug threat

By Associated Press , Francine Frazier - Senior web editor , Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A report released Thursday by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Attorney General Pam Bondi showed that fewer people are dying from prescription drug overdoses in Florida.

Prescription drug deaths decreased during the first half of 2013, compared to the same period the year before.

The most significant drop was in drug deaths caused by the painkiller oxycodone and alprazolam, the anti-anxiety drug sold as Xanax.

Overall, there were 975 prescription drug deaths the first half of last year, the report stated. Alcohol caused 302 deaths, followed by cocaine with 291 deaths. Bondi said in 2011, 1,175 people died under the influence of prescription drugs, and in 2012, 1,054 people lost their lives.

Bondi and Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford joined together Thursday to credit new laws and tougher enforcement with the decrease in prescription drug deaths.

"To see these remarkable strides that oxycodone deaths have fallen by more than 60 percent," Bondi said. "We did not expect it to be that fast."

Bondi said the state Legislature's prescription drug monitoring database put an end to almost all of the pill mills in Florida. At one time, the Sunshine State had 98 out of the top 100 prescribing doctors of hydrocodone and oxycodone, but today, authorities say those numbers are down to none.

But Rutherford is concerned the pill mill void could be filled if marijuana is legalized.

"Those same doctors that were running the pill mills will now be running the pot shops, and make no mistake about it, it's not about medical marijuana, it's about recreational marijuana," Rutherford said.

Rutherford said that more than 90 percent of the crime in Jacksonville is in some way linked to drug activity or use. He said the Florida Sheriff's Association agrees with marijuana use only for debilitating diseases.

"If (a medical marijuana referendum) passes, it's going to be devastating for the state of Florida, I believe," Rutherford said. "We're going to have medical marijuana in every backpack in every school in every county."

Despite the general decrease in prescription drug deaths, hydrocodone deaths are on the rise with 158 in the first half of last year compared to 122 in the first six months of 2012.

Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.