by: Tenikka Smith Updated:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Prescription drug abuse is now officially being called an epidemic.
"When the CDC says it's an epidemic in America, it shows that at the highest level it's become an issue," SBI Special Agent Donnie Varnell said.
Varnell leads the SBI's Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit. A part of his team's job is to investigate prescription drug diversion and fraud cases. Diversion is when prescription drugs are used for illegal or unintended purposes.
In the past, Varnell said he saw cases of individuals "doctor shopping," or going from doctor to doctor in an effort to get multiple prescription drugs, primarily painkillers.
But in the last few years, Varnell said more organized groups are popping up and profiting big time and fueling the growing addiction problem.
"One person is almost always in charge and they'll direct the other people on how to forge and pass diverted prescriptions," Varnell said.
Those fake prescriptions are filled at local pharmacies. Varnell said the prescription drug of choice for most dealers is the potent painkiller oxycodone.
The SBI said oxycodone goes for $1 a milligram on the street. That means one 30 milligram tablet of oxycodone is worth $30. A month's supply, or bottle with 30 pills, is worth $900. So if a dealer recruits 10 people to fill a fake prescription for a bottle each, they could potentially make $9,000 in a day's time -- profit that rivals that from heroin, marijuana or cocaine deals.
This is a large reason why investigators said dealers are going to desperate lengths to avoid getting caught, including crossing state lines.
Jason Dean of Dillon County, South Carolina, was arrested in December, accused of passing a fake prescription for 120 doses of oxycodone at a pharmacy in Wadesboro. The SBI said Dean is part of a group that made fake prescriptions they filled in both South and North Carolina and then sold on the streets.
"They know it's harder to track them if they jump state lines," said Varnell.
Nearly every state in the country has a prescription drug monitoring program or has enacted legislation to create one.
It's a state-run electronic database that collects information on controlled substances dispensed in the state.
The database can be accessed by law enforcement to investigate drug diversion or insurance fraud cases.
Medical professionals and agencies also use the databases to make sure patients are getting the proper treatment and aren't potentially abusing prescription drugs.
Dr. Krishna Baddigam is an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist in Charlotte.
"This allows us to fill in those gaps so we have a complete picture of the medical history of a particular patient," he said.
Baddigam said North Carolina's prescription monitoring program is a helpful tool, but as a North Carolina doctor, he can only immediately track prescriptions patients have filled in this state.
Baddigam said with the Charlotte area being along the border of South Carolina, that can create some challenges.
"It's quite easy for a patient to take a prescription from our office or any other office and take it across the border and have it filled in South Carolina." Baddigam said. "South Carolina has their own database so it would show up there, but as a North Carolina physician, I would not be able to access it without special permission."
Many states including South Carolina, have made getting access easier and faster by joining shared systems that allow member states to access one another's prescription monitoring information. Channel 9 contacted North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the state's database. A spokesperson said since late 2012, the state has considered joining an interstate prescription data hub and is currently looking at two options.
Varnell and Baddigam want North Carolina to join and say it would go a long way to help them stop the people putting dangerous drugs on the street.
"They can end up in schoolyard, they can end up in your neighborhood," Baddigam said.
"These drugs that are sold end up everywhere, so this is not someone else's problem," Varnell said.
These rings aren't just preying on abusers, they are also taking advantage of them.
Investigators said the dealers often hire prescription drug addicts to do the legwork and pass off the fake prescriptions at pharmacies and then often pay them with pills.
To learn more about prescription drug monitoring programs and how they work, click here.
For more information on substance abuse and where to get help, click here.
Click here for information on the NC prescription drug report.
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