Dave Aronberg, Pam Bondi's New Pick to Fight Pill Mills, Has His Work Cut Out for Him
Now that Rick Scott has nixed the state Office of Drug Control, which was instrumental in getting anti-pill-mill legislation passed, the duty to try to curb the illegal pill-mill industry falls on whoever will take it.
Enter Pam Bondi, your new Republican attorney general: After campaigning on a platform of cutting government spending, she's reallocating a portion of her budget to tackle pill mills. Much to her credit, she reached across party lines -- to a Democratic primary challenger for her seat -- to head the anti-pill-mill office, based in West Palm Beach.
We talked for a while with former state senator and pill-mill nemesis Dave Aronberg about his new gig, the importance of the Office of Drug Control, and why Georgia might become the next pain-pill capital.
The Juice: So how did you land this position?
Dave Aronberg: I was the first to investigate the makers of OxyContin: Nine or ten years ago, the AG asked me to investigate Purdue Pharma. From there, in the state Senate, I focused on this and sponsored the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) every year. [It finally passed, after eight tries, in the 2009 session]. After Pam Bondi won the election on the Republican side, she called me and asked me to be on her transition team on the issue of pill mills.
Why is your office necessary?
The state had pretty much no response to the pill-mill crisis in Florida; it was pretty much being handled by local law enforcement and the feds. Now that Florida's become the drug supplier for the entire country and leads the country in OxyContin prescriptions and deaths, it demands a statewide response.
We're building the team now, but it's not going to be big: a couple of prosecutors and an investigator. We can't increase the attorney general's total budget, so we're moving things around from other departments.
What kind of projects will you be pursuing?
We'll be pursuing the pill mills in three ways. First, criminally: We're going to go after pill-mill owners who violate the law. There are new rules that we're pushing to get adopted by April that will help prosecute these folks through drug trafficking laws. Secondly, we can deal with them administratively: inspecting and closing clinics, pulling licenses. It's really the Department of Health that needs to do that, but they're in flux right now. Finally, we need to help change laws, because there are loopholes. I've submitted a proposal to the AG on what needs to be done legislatively.
You were a hopeful for the position of attorney general, which your primary opponent, Dan Gelber, then lost to Pam Bondi... Was it challenging to build a relationship with her?
I had never met Pam before this campaign, but her younger brother, Brad Bondi, was my summer associate when I worked for the law firm of Steel, Hector & Davis in Miami. He became a friend, and I helped him get hired there. When Pam met me during the campaign, she told me she was Brad's big sister. So we were friendly on the campaign trail. I knew in my heart that after the election I'd be back in the Attorney General's Office. I know she was under pressure from some members of her own party not to hire a Democrat. But this issue is more important than politics.
It brings to mind Rick Scott's decision to block all new government rules until he can review them, which could be an obstacle for the prescription drug monitoring plan going into effect.
I immediately went to Pam Bondi as she was about to leave for the inaugural ball and said, "You need to talk to the governor -- we need these regulations." We believe that we're going to be OK. We believe that the rules are still on track.
Now that Florida's Prescription Drug Monitoring Plan is in jeopardy due to lack of funding, does your work involve some viable alternatives?
With the demise of the Office of Drug Control, there's a need for us to help with grants and the administration of the prescription-monitoring database. There are things we need to do that the ODC was doing; we need to step into that role. Because there's no drug czar anymore.
Have you been in touch with outgoing drug czar Bruce Grant?
We've talked. Had spoken to him before his office was eliminated, and I've emailed with him since.
Why do you think the prescription-monitoring bill finally passed in 2009?
The carnage. The Legislature could no longer avert its eyes from the seven deaths a day. At first, it was seen as an issue of junkies doing it to themselves, but now we know better.
And the now-defunct Office of Drug Control was instrumental in publicizing that seven-a-day figure, right?
Here's the question I'm asking everybody. Why did Florida become the pill-mill capital?
Here's my theory. Thanks to tougher laws and mandatory minimum jail sentences, the cocaine cowboys down in South Florida decided, why risk a 30-year sentence for cocaine trafficking when they could make as much money trafficking in legal drugs, where the laws are nearly nonexistent? The state got tough a couple of years ago on personal injury protection fraud, and people involved in that also needed somewhere to go. You're dealing with professional criminals here. Florida was one of the last states without a prescription database. Lax laws, no monitoring database, ready supplies of criminals and con men. There's only one thing missing: All you need is complicit doctors. And Florida has a large supply of retired doctors. Some of them decided to make some quick money. It was a perfect storm.
So what's next?
Our goal is to remove the welcome mat outside our border for these drug dealers. If Georgia is not careful, this will become their problem. In that state's last legislative session, they rejected a prescription drug monitoring plan.
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