A statewide report on drug-related deaths shows that the number of fatalities from prescription drugs continues to eclipse those caused by illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
The painkiller oxycodone, a class of anti-anxiety drugs that includes brand names such as Xanax and Valium, and the heroin-addiction-treatment drug methadone caused the most drug-related deaths in Florida during the first half of the year, according to a report by the state Medical Examiners Commission.
In the Orlando area alone, oxycodone caused 23 deaths, while methadone caused 15.
Although these figures put the Orlando area behind St. Petersburg and other areas in the number of deaths caused by these drugs, they show Central Florida is no exception to a statewide trend.
"There's not a week goes by that we don't investigate one of these cases," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who until recently was part of the commission that released the report.
Of the roughly 88,500 deaths statewide January through June 2009, just under 4,200 were drug-related, the report states.
Together, oxycodone, benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium, and methadone caused 1,333 deaths from Jan. 1 to June 30 -- far more than cocaine, with 236 deaths, and heroin, with 53.
Deaths from legal prescription drugs have risen during the past decade. But only last year did these drugs surpass cocaine as the deadliest. Some addicts prefer to abuse prescription drugs because they can be sure of their purity.
Florida is known as the nation's capital for "pill mills," medical practices that prescribe pain killers in large numbers, with little regard as to whether patients need them for treatment. These drugs are sold locally and out of state.
"Doctors are just handing it [the drugs] out like candy on Halloween. And that's a problem," Judd said.
This summer, Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law a measure would require Florida pharmacists and peddlers of addictive drugs to report their sales to a statewide database within 15 days.
This would allow doctors and pharmacists find out whether drug dealers or narcotics abusers were "doctor shopping," or getting a high number pills from multiple sources.
December 1, 2009