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Kentucky Police Struggle to Halt Pipeline of Pain Pills From South Florida

Florida has given the rest of America so much over the years: delicious orange juice, great football players, cop dramas, a preposterous quantity of Disney paraphernalia, and more recently, the devastating social destruction of prescription pill addiction.

Wayne Bird, chief of police in Williamsburg, the southernmost Kentucky town on I-75, tells Juice that pain pills now account for 85 to 90 percent of all the arrests made by his force. And the vast majority of those pills, he says, come from pain clinics in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Police Chief Bird says the explosion of pill addiction in Eastern Kentucky in the past few years -- specifically addiction to the powerful opioid oxycodone -- is stunning. At least seven out of every ten traffic stops in his town have something to do with prescription pills. And most of the people in his jail right now are there because of something they did while on pills, something they did to get pills, or because they were caught possessing pills illegally. Law enforcement in Florida even has a nickname for these people: "Pillbillies."

At pain clinics in South Florida (many of which advertise in New Times), an 80mg pill of OxyContin (one of the brand names of oxycodone) sells for about $5. As we know, there are more pain clinics in Broward than McDonald's. And with a wad of cash and a willingness to hit up several of these pill mills, someone could easily procure 1,000 pills in a single afternoon. Those same pills, when sold illegally in Kentucky (and several neighboring states), go for about $80 each. Bird says in Williamsburg, it's closer to $100 each. Either way, it's a very profitable smuggler's run.

"We're just seeing a phenomenal amount of people from Kentucky going to Florida for these pills," says Bird. "They drive down there to Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, and they're getting bags full of pills, and they're driving back the same day."

Williamsburg now has three officers on a new, full-time beat. They patrol the interstate, just north of the state line, watching for swerving drivers coming across the border. Bird says they average about ten stops a day there now. "A lot of times, they pass out as they're driving. Right there on the highway."

He says it wasn't like this until recently. "I've been a police officer for 16 years," he says. "When I started, four out of ten arrests were for marijuana. Maybe once in a while, there was a small amount of cocaine. You always had the fear of running into a syringe, but you never saw them. I never saw a syringe, for years. Now you see them all the time."

Those syringes are for the pain pills. Addicts, in search of the quickest way to introduce the oxycodone into their bloodstreams, will melt the pills on a spoon or piece of foil, suck the resulting liquid into a syringe, and inject it straight into a vein. Many of the people Bird's officers arrest have holes in their arms that reek from infection.

But infection isn't even close to worst part of mass addiction to such a dangerous drug (oxycodone is a synthetic form of heroin). Bird had to take a trip to the eastern office of the Kentucky State Medical Examiner's Office for an autopsy. While there, in just a single afternoon, five more bodies came in. They were all fatal overdoses.

More recently, two women pulled off the highway in Williamsburg and drove to the police station. They went in and told officers that they thought the man in the back seat had stopped breathing. "Almost immediately, officers determined the individual had been dead for at least 45 minutes," Bird says. There were pills from a pain clinic in Boca Raton all over the back seat and throughout the car. A toxicology report showed that the man had more than ten times the therapeutic levels of oxycodone in his blood.

So why is the problem so big in this region? Why Kentucky and southern Ohio and West Virginia and not Alabama or Georgia or South Dakota? Well, by all accounts, prescription pill addiction is on the rise everywhere, but Bird suspects his region is particularly vulnerable.

"The economy in Kentucky is really down right now," he says. "In my county [Whitley County], the actual working population is about 45 percent." That leaves a large chunk of the population to sit around, trying to deal with the pains and stresses of life in poverty. Most addicts there, he says, start young. They try the drug at a party or at a friend's house and can get addicted before they even realize what they're taking.

"These are good kids, young kids," he says. "Every family here knows someone affected."

Bird says he doesn't know if there's an end to the destruction in sight. "As long as these clinics are giving it out and as long as there's no system to track who's getting what, you just don't know."

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Michael J. Mooney

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