Fighting the scourge of "pill mills"

The arrest of a suspect in illegal trafficking of prescription medications in Pinellas County, Fla.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one American dies of a drug overdose every 14 minutes ... with a rapidly increasing share of those deaths caused by prescription drugs. It's the sort of statistic law enforcement officials in one Florida county know about all too well. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by Tracy Smith:

Another day, another pill patrol for Pinellas County, Fla. Sheriff's deputies.

Instead of chasing drugs from abroad, police say their biggest problem now comes from a doctor's office.

After years of spotty regulation, Florida is still awash in prescription painkillers, like Oxycontin, the brand name for Oxycodone.

And the effect has been lethal: In Florida alone, seven people die of prescription drug overdose every 24 hours.

Nationwide, prescription drug overdose has surpassed traffic accidents as the leading cause of accidental death.

"I think we have to realize that this is the first time in the history of the world that we have had a public health epidemic of death, disease and destruction that is actually being caused by health care," said Lisa Roberts, a public health nurse.

And Florida is the epicenter:

Police surveillance tape captures a Pinellas County pain clinic - run by a licensed doctor as a cash-only convenience store for prescription painkillers, or pill mill - and the customers can't seem to get in fast enough.

"People literally line up in the morning, wait for the doors to open," said Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri. "They swarm inside.

"I hate to even call them 'doctors,'" Gualtieri said. "Because they're really not doctors. They're people who hold a medical license, but they're really not practicing medicine. And you pay a cash fee."

"They're drug dealers," he said.

When we rode along with Pinellas County sheriff's deputies, their focus was a storefront medical clinic.

Shutting down the "doctors" who run pill mills can be a marathon legal process, so in Pinellas County, police also go after the visitors as they leave.

If the detectives can get them for the smallest violation - maybe they don't put their seatbelt on when they drive away - that's a reason to pull them over, and most of the time something else is going on in that car.

Police follow one car for a few blocks, then pull him over for the seatbelt violation - and find he's carrying a handful of prescriptions. They suspect this "patient" may be a prescription drug dealer - going from doctor to doctor, stockpiling supplies.

After a few phone calls to the doctors, he's arrested on suspicion of doctor shopping - a felony that carries a jail term of up to five years.

Part of the problem, police say, is the lure of instant wealth.

Chief Deputy Bob Qualtieri says the pill mills are very profitable: "Because you can go to a local pharmacy and buy a generic pill for about a dollar a pill. You could sell it locally, on the street, for $15 to $20 a pill. You could take it up north in some places and sell it for $30 a pill."