Prescription pills a growing problem in neighborhoods

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter, Lauren Sweeney

HOUSTON - According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more people abuse prescription drugs than heroin, cocaine and hallucinogens combined. DEA officials also said Houston become known as a “source city” in the battle against prescription drug abuse.

"We were very concerned and I would say frustrated," said a Houston doctor, who asked not to be identified.

This doctor called Channel 2 Investigates after noticing a small clinic near his southwest Houston practice was attracting large numbers of people on a daily basis, prompting concerns about safety.

"It wasn't anything like what you would see for a normal individual going to a doctor for a check-up or an exam," he said. "When you have patients coming into your business you've been seeing for 35-40 years and they are saying, 'What's going on next door, I don’t feel safe.'"

Channel 2 cameras captured long lines of people waiting to get into this clinic, along with drivers dropping off several people at once. The doctor who contacted Channel 2 also contacted Houston police and in the middle of our surveillance, officers raided the clinic.

A search warrant filed in Harris County court read undercover Houston police officers were able to obtain prescriptions for pain pills and muscle relaxants from the clinic with little or no physical examination by staff. The warrant also said the clinic was "not issued a pain management certificate as required by law."

Police said no charges have been filed at this time, but the clinic was shut down and the investigation is continuing. Police also said a nurse practitioner listed on the prescriptions given to undercover officers surrendered her license the day of the raid.

Both Houston police and federal agents said what happened in this neighborhood is happening in neighborhoods across our area.

"We refer to them as pill mills," said DEA Special Agent Wendell Campbell.

Campbell said in addition to feeding those struggling with addiction, these clinics have a wide ranging impact on the surrounding area. Campbell said many times so-called “crew bosses” will round up homeless people and drive them to several clinics a day to get prescriptions. Those prescriptions are then filled at a pharmacy so the pills can be sold on the street.

Campbell also said those visiting a “pill mill” can bring other types of crime into an area.

"If people need money to buy pills they are going to do things to get that money," said Campbell.

In addition to the street level crime, prescription pills are also being viewed as a new gateway drug. The DEA reports 80 percent of new heroin users started on prescription opioids. Campbell explains heroin is cheaper than pills but produces the same type of "high."

The DEA also reported 13.9 percent of high school seniors admitted to abusing prescription pills in the past year.

Campbell said the practitioners who cross the line are small in number compared to the legitimate pain management clinics within Houston’s thriving medical community. However, he said these rogue clinics are, in part, why Houston has become known as a "source city."

"A place that people will come to get pills, not only from our region, but also from other states," said Campbell. "Those doctors that choose to cross that line are nothing more than a drug dealer in a white coat."

The DEA has launched a nationwide crackdown on prescription drug abuse, but an investigation into a single clinic can takes several months to complete.

"We can’t arrest our way out of the situation," said Campbell. "At the end of the day we have to use a combination of enforcement and education."

Click here for more info on how to report a possible pill mill in your area.

  • 1 in 6 teenagers admit to taking prescription drugs to get high or change their mood (drugfree.org)
  • Twice as many Americans abuse prescription drugs than those who abuse cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin combined.  In addition, prescription drug abuse is second only to marijuana abuse in the United States.
  • Costs of non-medical use of prescription opioids to the U.S. economy:  Over $50 billion annually.  Five opioid drugs, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, account for two-thirds of total economic burden (Clinical Journal of Pain, March, 2011).
  • Drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2013.  Overdoses caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic accidents (CDC, April, 2015).
  • There is a strong association between prior non-medical use of pain relievers and the subsequent past year initiation of heroin use.  Recent heroin abuse rate is 19 times higher among those who reported prior non-medical use of pain relievers than among those who did not report such use (SAMHSA, August, 2013).  Four out of every five recent heroin initiates used prescription opioids non-medically (NIDA, June, 2015).
  • Overdose deaths from heroin abuse have more than doubled since 2010 (NIDA, February, 2015).
  • Heroin abuse is not limited to a certain demographic or geographic area.  What has been seen as primarily an urban drug in reality is a drug that touches every segment of society.  Inner cities, wealthy suburbs, poor rural areas – everywhere.
  • Heroin abuse is on the rise amongst younger Americans, many of whom see it as a cheaper alternative to opiate-based painkiller abuse, which has also become an epidemic in the United States.
  • Heroin is death. There is no such thing as a “good batch” of heroin versus a “tainted batch.”  Any heroin or other dangerous drug can potentially lead to overdose and death.
  • The amount of heroin seized each year at the Southwest Border increased nearly four times from 2008 (558.8 kilograms) to 2014 (2,181 kilograms).
  • Between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled.  In 2013 alone, more than 8,200 people died from heroin overdoses.  Sixty percent of those heroin-related overdose deaths involved at least one other drug.

To read more on how the Justice Department  is attacking America’s epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse click here.

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