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Jacksonville a Source for Illegal Prescription Drug Business, Clinics

2:14 PM, Apr 6, 2011   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's hard to tell what's inside the building.

There's no name on the door, no sign outside either.

Moments later, a man comes out upset to find a reporter on a public street near that unmarked building.

"I'm gonna tell you what, man, you don't get this thing out of my face, it will be part of your face," he said. 

The man refuses to give his name, but a First Coast News investigation has revealed that he is Vincent Colangelo, a convicted felon. Police said he is just one part of a growing problem in Florida.

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"A clinic can make from $5,000 to $50,000 a day based on their size and the amount of patients going in there," said Broward County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Richard Pisanti, who investigates the problem.

Colangelo and Pisanti have one thing in common: a pill.  Over the last couple of years, prescription drug addiction has skyrocketed. Quarterback Brett Favre, Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, and talk show host Rush Limbaugh are just some high-profile addicts who have come forward.

In fact, chances are you most likely know someone abusing pain pills.

"Ever since I could remember, Jacksonville has been a place.  Doctors are so much more lenient," said "Chris."

Chris, a former addict who would only be interviewed under a fake name, said he tried OxyContin after he found it in his home when he was 13. "I've watched three people in the last year die within 24 hours of leaving the city (Jacksonville). I sat next to them and watched."

Chris, 25, said he has been sober since the end of January. He said he started when his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and he was given the prescription for pain. In no time, Chris said he was hooked.

"I ended up overdosing at maybe 15. It was the first time." 

But it wasn't a wake-up call, he said. Chris was ready to get out of the hospital and back home to his pills.

Oxy controlled every aspect of his life, he said. He was on a constant hunt for pills, but getting them at home was getting tougher because of state laws. 

So, he headed south to Florida and stopped in Jacksonville.  Chris has made the trip to Duval County twice a week since he was 17, he said.
 
"It's easy to come down here and get pills." 

So easy, he said that he bought pills for himself and then sold the rest for double what he paid. His addiction became his job.

All Chris had to do was head down Interstate 95. To many, it is just a highway. But to others, it is known as the oxycodone Express leading to hundreds of pain clinics down the Florida coast.

"It's not uncommon to see people leaving with anywhere from 240 to 480 pills," says JSO Sgt. Tom Racer, who is in charge of the team which hunts for those buying and selling painkillers illegally in Duval County.

"Florida right now does not have a prescription drug monitoring program. We're only (among) a handful of states that doesn't. That is huge," said Racer.

No monitoring system means no one at the state or federal level is monitoring pain clinics or their patients. Right now, there are at least 48 pain clinics in Jacksonville and the number is growing.

JSO is tight-lipped about this growing problem. 

"It's safe to say there are some pain clinics that may be operating in a questionable manner. I will leave it at that," said Racer.

Two weeks ago, near Jacksonville, Norma Lamb and William Alcorn were arrested during a traffic stop. According to their arrest report, police found more than $2,600 in cash along with Xanax and oxycodone in their car.

Lamb told police they were on their way home to Lexington, Ken. According to the report, she told police they were in Florida, specifically Ft. Lauderdale, to buy pills at a pain clinic.

Ft. Lauderdale, 326 miles from Jacksonville, is a straight shot down I-95, and before the Broward County line, there are billboards dotting the highway leading you to pain clinics.

"We call it ground zero. We see it as the epicenter for dispensing oxycodone," said Pisanti.

Florida's pain clinic problem started by word of mouth in Broward County years ago, but has grown into an epidemic in the last two years, he said.

"In a two-mile area, we arrested over 700 people last year alone in our clinic investigations." 

Pisanti said in 2008, nearly nine million oxycodone pills were prescribed in Broward County alone. There are 115 clinics in Broward; some are right across the street from one another. In fact, in one single-block stretch there were five. The area is known as Oxy Alley.

"It's a big money-making machine," said Pisanti. 

The lax laws in Florida help feed the money making machine.  People are now driving hundreds of miles out of state to get their pain pills in Florida. In Broward County clinic parking lots, we spotted license plates from Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas.

In local newspapers, there are pages of ads for pain clinics. Some ads are targeted at those from out of state; others let patients know they sell pills at the clinic for as low as $1.50.  There are coupons for $100 off a visit.

"They find the loopholes in the law and stick on the razor's edge to keep those loopholes protecting them," said Pisanti.

It is nothing to see lines of people waiting to get inside clinics, he said, adding that some clinics have hired guards to keep the truck loads of people moving. 

"Why would you need a security guard at a clinic to keep your patients away?" said Pisanti.

The clinic where Colangelo was had cars lined up, loaded with people waiting for hours to get inside the building.

When asked about what was inside, a group of men coming out got into a car from Kentucky and sped off.

Police know the building very well. "Right now, two of our clinics are owned by convicted felons. One is an ex-heroin trafficker.   He served time and he's out. He's transitioned to pain clinics.  He has a doctor working for him on staff," said Pisanti. "It's 100 percent legal by Florida laws currently."

Pisanti said the ex-heroin trafficker is Colangelo, who spent four and half years in prison, and was released in 2004. He was last arrested in 2007 on a probation violation and remains on probation.

When asked if he owned the building or was a doctor, Colangelo said, "It doesn't matter who I am. I don't need you out here harassing my patients."

"I'm not answering your questions...I'm gonna break this camera. I'm gonna rip this thing out of this kid's hand in a minute. Turn the camera off."

Colangelo then told one of the clinic workers standing beside him, "I tell you what...as soon as this truck leaves, follow them wherever they are going."

Colangelo and the clinic worker took pictures and the license tag of a First Coast News vehicle, then followed it for a couple of blocks. Police said Colangelo runs the no-name clinic.

"You can come down here and go to 20 clinics.  Unless we are following you, you might get away with it and you will have a years supply in one batch from where you are from and sell it on the street," said Pisanti.

Those from out-of-state are like clockwork making routine monthly visits, they said. Pills run about $4.50 each at the clinic.

Some will sell those pills for $8 to $10 in the parking lot so they can pay for their trip back home, Pisanti said. But most take the pills out of state where they are more valuable.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, that same $4.50 pill goes for anywhere from $20 to $30 or higher. "Potentially, they could go back with $50,000 in pills in one trip," said Pisanti.

Last year, prescription drug overdoses went up 26 percent in Broward County and 6 percent across the state.  Broward County is now trying to change local laws to combat the problem.

"The problem is stretched from South Florida to Kentucky, Tennessee and parts of Georgia. If people are dying in all those areas, and we are the source, we need to cut that off," said Pisanti.

So far, his team has shut down four clinics and stopped 10 others from opening in Broward County. But that's not good news for northbound travelers on I-95. Now that Broward is cracking down, clinics are moving to new spots, including Jacksonville.

"There's definitely a concern, but I think there is a concern for all of Florida. What we are starting to see is not only have some of them moved here. They are starting to move to other cities in North Florida," said Racer.

JSO said there is a large percentage of overdose deaths linked to prescription medication in Duval County and there is concern about the future.

"What concerns me the most is what is happening to our young people. Seeing people in their early 20s eating these pills like they are candy, and eventually that is going to kill you in the long run," said Racer.

Chris is grateful to be alive since he overdosed numerous times.  "Three months clean, every day is a struggle," he said. "I just wake up and worry about getting breakfast and then worry about making it to work. If I think too far ahead of myself, I end up mixed up."

He wants laws to be changed and doctors, who are handing out hundreds of pills, held accountable. "I think they are greedy.  None of those doctors would have come and sat at my funeral if I overdosed on their pills."

Florida lawmakers are starting to change those laws. We will tell you what the state has done and its plans Tuesday night at 11 on First Coast News.

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