SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) -- Forget heroin or crack cocaine. Getting high these days involves Oxycontin, a legal pharmaceutical. Abuse of the opiate is rampant, and many of the victims are young suburbanites, who will go to great lengths to get their fix.
"We're just looking for information, intelligence," said Joe, an undercover San Francisco narcotics officer. Joe is on assignment with Tony, a DEA special agent.
They are part of a new joint task force, set up to attack the growing problem of illegal prescription drug sales. "Oc" and "Hillbilly Heroin" are the street names for Oxycontin, the highly addictive prescription pain pill that is fast becoming the high of choice, mostly among young adults.
"They are smoking them, they are snorting them, they are injecting them," Joe said.
An 80 milligram dose of "Oc" goes for $40 on the street, more expensive than heroin. But the high price isn't stopping people from all over the Bay Area from driving into the city to buy it. It is destination shopping at the corner of Leavenworth and Golden Gate, an area widely known as "Pill Hill."
"We didn't make that name up!" Joe said.
"A lot of people know this is where they can come to get their pills," Tony said.
Sure enough, just minutes after Joe and Tony pull in, a "buyer" crosses the street in front of them. "He's looking for some kind of narcotic," Joe said. He approaches a man in a wheelchair. Minutes later he's headed back to his car.
"See, here he comes. He did his deal," Joe said.
Where is he from? The company car he is driving is registered to a business on the San Francisco waterfront.
Minutes later, we witness another transaction. This "buyer" is even bolder, negotiating right out of his car.
"See, he's handing him the pills right now. He just handed them," Joe said. Apparently unfazed by people passing by, it looks like he is crushing a pill on his dash.
And then: "See, he snorted it. He just snorted it!" Joe said. "You see how blatant it is!" Tony added.
What happened next surprised even our detectives. "He doesn't want to pay him all. See now he's all pissed off because he's not paying him the amount he wanted for the 'Oc.' He just ripped him off!" The buyer drives off in a hurry. His license plate registers to an address in San Anselmo.
"It could have been a very bad situation," Tony said.
It's the potential for violence, and the growing number of overdoses and deaths, that is prompting the police crackdown. But it's a tough job.
"You can't arrest them fast enough and keep them behind bars long enough to make a real drastic effect," Joe said.
Though the San Francisco Police Department made over 300 arrests in just the last 6 months, Joe said the District Attorney's office has a revolving door. "We do all this paperwork arresting these people and they go in the system and then they come right back out," Joe said.
"I understand the frustration in the police department," said Sharon Woo. She heads up the San Francisco District Attorney's criminal division. "I would like to tell him that we are prosecuting these cases," she said.
But she said many of the suspects are elderly and disabled, possibly selling their pills to make ends meet. "We don't necessarily think that incarceration is the solution for this population of people. We are trying to give them services to stop selling their pills," Woo said.
But from a cop's perspective: "I understand you give people chances, but do you give them chances 20-30 times?" Joe said.
And what about the bigger fish: Shadow dealers, trafficking thousands of pills at a time.
Woo said those cases are high priority. "We will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law."
So far she admits those major players have been elusive. "I don't know where the supply is coming from. All we can do is continue to investigate," Woo said.
That is one thing everyone agrees on. "That's our goal, is to stop the flow of drugs out here, so it's not as blatant or easy for these people to get these drugs," said Tony.
Potential sources for illegal Oxycontin sales are so-called dirty doctors, and dirty pharmacies. Investigators with the newly formed Prescription Task Force are working leads nationwide to track them down.
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