WESTON, Fla. -- U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local police swept across South Florida today making arrests as part of a lengthy undercover operation into illegal pill mills that dispense huge amounts of powerful prescription drugs across the nation.
Among those arrested in the bust was Vincent Colangelo, who is charged with distribution of controlled substances and money laundering.
A federal indictment shows he owns seven clinics in South Florida. First Coast News interviewed him in 2010 while researching a story on pill mills.
Federal law enforcement officials said today the yearlong probe involved undercover purchases of painkillers and other prescription drugs. They spoke on condition of anonymity because details were to be announced at an afternoon news conference featuring top officials from 15 federal, state and local agencies.
The investigation centered on dozens of pain clinics in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Arrests were expected to include doctors and pain clinic operators, with assets also being seized by hundreds of law enforcement officers.
South Florida is the national epicenter for illegal dispensing of prescription drugs such as the highly addictive painkiller oxycodone. State officials said recently that 85 percent of all oxycodone pills sold in the U.S. come from Florida and that the nation's top 50 medical prescribers of such drugs are located in the state.
Federal officials say 27,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2007, nearly half from prescription drugs. The data is the most recent available.
As law enforcement officials struggle to keep up with the problem, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has recently faced criticism both inside and outside Florida for his proposal to scrap a planned state database for tracking prescription drugs. Scott said Tuesday he will not back down, contending that the program is a waste of money and an invasion of privacy.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, like Scott a Republican, said she supports the database but is focused on boosting penalties and enforcement against illicit pill mill operations.
Several U.S. senators, including Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have written Scott to urge that Florida's tracking system be put in place because the lack of it has "serious ramifications" for drug abuse nationwide.
Associated Press, First Coast News