Illegal prescription drugs gain bigger share on streets


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Once John Humphries got out of federal prison after serving seven years for conspiring to sell oxycodone, he went back to scoring pills using fake prescriptions -- but with a new twist.

He started purposely making glaring spelling errors on the scripts, just to show how leaky the system for dispensing "controlled" substances had become.

"I remember at that time printing up fake prescriptions with fake addresses and thinking, 'There's no way this stuff should work,' " said Humphries, 40, a Brighton Heights native who recently moved to California, in an interview last week. "They were printed on a home computer, with regular paper. ... The pharmacies were just filling them."

Humphries' struggle with prescription drug addiction started around 1993, when the black market for pills was embryonic. Now it has grown to the point where U.S. Attorney David Hickton is calling for a community-wide effort to tackle it.

"You hear anecdotal stories of kids having pharma parties," Mr. Hickton said, where they toss all of their parents' meds in a bowl and everybody takes a handful. The eventual result: "Individuals are becoming so in the grip of this addiction that they're walking in and putting guns to the pharmacist's face and walking out with thousands of pills."

Law enforcement is busting doctors who prescribe indiscriminately, users who defraud insurers in pursuit of pills and dealers who turn medicines into street drugs. No one, though, seems to think that's the whole solution.

Mr. Hickton has organized a prescription drug abuse summit, set for June 27 at Washington & Jefferson College, in an effort to boost community awareness and collaboration.

"I'm not interested in prosecution stats," said Mr. Hickton. "I'm interested in community safety."

It's well-known that many prescription narcotic users turn to heroin when the pills get too expensive, but rarely is the connection as clear as it became in Johnstown on Wednesday. That's when Mr. Hickton unveiled a nine-count indictment of 15 people who are accused of bringing prescription Opana and heroin from Detroit to Pennsylvania.

That's a disturbing change from the traditional demarcation between pill pushers and street drug dealers. Experts said it reflects market realities.

"If you're a drug dealer, it's a good business decision," said Neil A. Capretto, medical director of Center-based Gateway Rehabilitation Center.

"Here's a pill person who has now worked their way up through Percocets and Vicodin, and now they want something stronger, so they're moving to Opana," he said. "In a short period of time they're going to say, 'I can't afford [Opana] anymore,'" and if the dealer has the cheaper heroin, they can keep the customer.

The Johnstown-area bust is one of a series of recent takedowns of pill rings by federal, state and local agencies.

Awaiting a September sentencing is John Paul Larcinese, a Jefferson Hills man who wrote fake prescriptions for Oxycontin and similar drugs, then drove addicts around to pharmacies from which they bought the drugs in return for a cut. On the prescriptions, Mr. Larcinese used the names and Drug Enforcement Agency numbers of real doctors, but he added phone numbers that he controlled so he could catch any calls for verification.

Mr. Larcinese is blamed for selling more than 1.6 kilograms of prescription narcotics, which federal law equates to more than 11,000 kilograms of marijuana. Sentencing guidelines suggest that he may face 14 to 17 years in prison.

Mr. Hickton's office recently took another link from the supply chain with the conviction of Oliver W. Herndon, a doctor who pleaded guilty last month to health care fraud and improper distribution of oxycodone and oxymorphone. Dr. Herndon prescribed Opana and other potent narcotics based on three-minute office visits devoid of physical examinations or case histories. His plea bargain calls for 11 years and three months in prison.

"I think that taking Herndon off made a major impact here," said Gary Davis, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA office in Pittsburgh. Prices of some pills doubled, to around $50 a pop, and remain there in the Pittsburgh area, Mr. Davis said.

It won't last, he conceded. "We're seeing already that there are other organizations here that are stepping in and filling the void."

The removal of Dr. Herndon from the market has resulted in a drop in the number of Opana addicts reporting to Gateway, said Dr. Capretto. But he has heard that some Opana users have reacted to the price hike by switching to heroin.

The fear of that transition leads some well-meaning doctors to keep patients supplied with prescription narcotics because they think, "Well, if I don't keep giving it to them, they'll go to heroin," said Dr. Capretto.

"It would be better to get them help than to keep stringing them along."

In Washington County, scene of the June 27 summit, prescription drugs have been driving the increase in drug-related deaths. In 2010, medicines were found in the systems of 22 of the 31 people who died from drugs, and last year that rose to 34 out of 46 deaths.

That's the ultimate price, but the societal cost is even broader.

Diane S. Bundy, 38, of Greensburg was arraigned Wednesday on federal charges of health care fraud and obtaining a controlled substance through fraud. A grand jury concluded that she forged prescriptions for drugs and had them billed to insurers with whom she didn't have policies, to the tune of nearly $50,000 over three years.

The indictment said she posed as a physician's office employee and called the prescriptions in to pharmacies. Among the drugs she is accused of purchasing is Suboxone, which is commonly used to help people withdraw from narcotics, but which also can be abused.

Assistant federal public defender Marketa Sims prevented Bundy from commenting after the arraignment, at which she pleaded not guilty.

The federal charge is just the latest legal problem for Bundy, who since 2005 has assembled a state court record of convictions for unauthorized use of motor vehicles, false reports, forgery, identity theft, theft, drug possession, impaired driving, procuring drugs by fraud, conspiracy and other crimes.

Humphries endured 15 years of criminal charges while in thrall to pills, and counts himself lucky because he survived and now works as a sales manager for a chemical company. He said his wife wasn't as fortunate, drifted into heroin addiction, and is in rehab now.

He doesn't blame the doctors so much as the pharmacies. His website, www.capitalizingonaddiction.com, calls for stepped-up efforts by pharmacies to check the identifications of narcotics buyers, track their purchases and share data to red flag people who might be diverting drugs to street use.

Legislation pending in the state House would improve the tracking of prescription narcotic purchases. It may take a cultural change, though, to really reverse the trend.

"I grew up in an era where it was either, deal with it, or take an aspirin," Mr. Hickton said. That has changed. When someone, especially a young person, comes to a doctor with pain, said Mr. Hickton, "maybe they should give none" of the narcotic drugs. "Maybe they should give some. But they shouldn't give 30, 50, 80 Percocets."

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To register to attend the summit's afternoon session, geared toward police and professionals but open to the public, email to USAPAW-RxDrugAbuseSummit@usdoj.gov. To register for the 6 to 8 p.m. public session for parents, educators and concerned citizens, call 412-894-7516. Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. First Published June 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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