Florida Pain Clinics Face Uncertain Regulations: Tampa Bay Criminal Defense Attorney Weighs in on the Effects of Pill Mill Legislation

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Melinda Morris, Florida criminal defense attorney, analyzes the effects enforcement of SB2722 may have on pain clinics in Tampa Bay, Florida and surrounding areas, and the governor’s moves to eliminate Florida’s Office of Drug Control and Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

These new regulations and stepped-up law enforcement may have detrimental effects on physicians and staff running the clinics, as well as legitimate patients coming to the clinics for true medical purposes, warns attorney Melinda Morris.

In an effort to balance the Florida state budget, Gov. Rick Scott recently removed the staff from Florida’s Office of Drug Control and desires to cancel the not yet implemented Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, or “PDMP.” The Office of Drug Control, which combated drug abuse in the state through prevention, treatment and law enforcement, was also intended to oversee the prescription drug database through the PDMP Implementation and Oversight Task Force. Amidst the governor’s efforts to cancel programs that would impact Florida’s prescription drug problem, legislators passed SB2722 in the fall, which stringently regulates Florida pain clinics.

In recent years Florida has had an explosion of illegitimate pain clinics. These “pill mills” tend to dispense pain pills to patients who may not actually need them, or physicians may prescribe pills without actually examining the patients. Abusers of pain clinics also “doctor shop,” where they are repeatedly prescribed the same medication at multiple physician’s offices or pain clinics who don’t know the prescription has already been filled. In turn, the drugs are often sold on the streets, or abused by those who doctor shop.

Prescription pill overdoses kill approximately seven Floridians per year in addition to citizens from other states who come to Florida for pain medication because of the state’s lenient laws regarding regulation.

Tampa Bay drug defense attorney, Melinda Morris advises, “There is no doubt that Florida, and the Tampa Bay area in particular, has a prescription drug trafficking problem. The recent efforts made by legislators to control Florida’s prescription pill problem are commendable, but may have unintended consequences for law abiding citizens.” Morris continues, “while regulation and enhanced law enforcement may have a positive effect on the prescription drug problem, there is a very real possibility that individuals seeking legitimate pain care, in addition to innocent physicians and clinic staff may be caught in the web of overzealous law enforcement and prosecution.”

In 2009, Florida enacted statute 893.055, which aimed to create a statewide database that monitored patient’s drug prescriptions, the amount of drugs, and the doctor who prescribed the medications. This database was designed to identify patients who doctor shop, and allow physicians to see if their patient was already prescribed medication for the treatment they were seeking. Unfortunately, the database has never been implemented, and the Florida governor has made efforts to ensure it never gets off the ground.

Without meaningful tools in place to fight the prescription drug problem in Florida, legislators and law enforcement have started an aggressive and broad campaign to combat the issue. This includes SB2722 and the statewide crackdowns on prescription drug trafficking and pain clinics.

Under Senate Bill 2722, clinics must be registered in the name of a fully licensed physician who also practices at the clinic. Clinics are also inspected regularly in order to ensure they are in compliance with the law. Additionally, physicians must give a physical exam to a person requesting pain medication, and if pain medication in excess of a 72 hour supply is prescribed, the reason for the medication must be documented in the patient’s record. Furthermore, physicians cannot give a prescription for more than 72 hours of pain pills to patients paying with cash, check or credit card except in certain situations.

“These new regulations and stepped-up law enforcement may have detrimental effects on physicians and staff running the clinics, as well as legitimate patients coming to the clinics for true medical purposes. It is difficult to keep up with new legislation as a clinic operator, and becoming more probable that patients with good intentions may be caught up in law enforcement’s reactionary measures,” asserts Melinda Morris, St. Petersburg controlled substance defense attorney.

The stricter rules and more rigid standards have prompted many clinics and physicians to contemplate their future. According to an article published Jan. 19, 2011 by Letitia Stein in the St. Petersburg Times, administrative errors have caused genuine clinics to shut down temporarily as they seek to comply with the law, while others have shut down permanently because they have not been able to meet the state’s licensing requirements.

“Patients and physicians may not fully understand Florida’s complex new laws regarding prescription drugs and pain clinics. This can lead to criminal drug charges, such as possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to sell, possession of drug paraphernalia, and drug trafficking,” warns Florida prescription drug trafficking defense attorney Melinda Morris.

Further, with the wide variety of medications available, patients may not realize the pills they seek are the same prescription drugs that legislators and law enforcement are targeting, including Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, Codeine, Hydromorphone, Dilaudid, Xanax, Valium, Oxycodone, Percodan, Percocet, OxyContin, Morphine, Roxanol, Kadian, Fentanyl, Fentora, Duragesic, Demerol, Hydrocodone, Lortab, Lorcet, Vicoprofen and Vicodin.

Penalties for prescription drug charges in Florida can be severe and far reaching. Pain clinic operators and those seeking treatment may face penalties that include jail or prison sentences, a mandatory two year driver’s license suspension, negative effects on employment opportunities, military career or academic status, ineligibility to seal or expunge a criminal record, fines, and mandatory substance-abuse treatment.

Melinda Morris, managing partner of the Morris Law Firm, represents those accused of drug offenses in St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida and the Tampa Bay area of Florida, including Clearwater in Pinellas County, Tampa in Hillsborough County, Dade City and New Port Richey in Pasco County, Bradenton in Manatee County, Bartow in Polk County and Sarasota County, Florida.

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