Tuesday afternoon I was among the reporters who dutifully responded to a press conference the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office called with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement “to announce the results of a major prescription drug trafficking investigation.” Simultaneous press conferences were to be held at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
It sounded big. Sheriff Don Fleming and his accomplices certainly did their best to make it look big. There he was, surrounded by Joel Bolante, chief of staff at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, Jeff Hardy, the Putnam County sheriff, J. Todd Lockhart, head of the Jacksonville Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, two guys from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a few members of the local sheriff’s office. All looking particularly Sober and Serious for the occasion. They had two sober and serious charts, too, and a public information officer who distributed CDs of the same two charts, the press release that was about to be emailed to us anyway, and the one list of names of people who were arrested, a list that would also soon be handed out to us on paper. The CD just made things look more serious. Not to mention sober.
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We were there too of course, reporters from four or five different outfits (print, radio, online, TV), validating the show with our own Serious and Sober questions. That’s how these things work. It’s how they’ve been working for more than 50 years now, since the dawn of the war on drugs back in the Nixon administration, when law enforcement would hype the latest drug scourge to ravage the country, the press would obediently play into the hype, which sells papers anyway, all sorts of arrests would be announced to the favorite soundtrack of local police and government agencies—the sound of self-congratulations—and the tax-paying public would clap along to the rhythm of bulked up police and prison budgets. Half a century later we have more people in prison than China does (a nation four times as populous as ours and supposedly immeasurably more repressive than ours), and still the same old drug war scenarios being parroted before our eyes. The language is the same. The drug is different.
The flavor of the month these days: prescription pills.
I don’t mean to make light of the problem. There is an over-prescription problem. Anybody with children in school or parents in assisted living or nursing home facilities has experienced first-hand caretakers’ addiction to doping up children and the elderly as the default means of controlling them and making the caretakers’ job easier. There’s also an addiction and overdose problem, thanks mostly to a society that never tires of seeking salvation in the nearest pill and a pharmaceutical industry with nothing to distinguish it from a drug pusher other than fancier stationery and immunity from the law.
There’s also an overhype problem, and perspectives out of whack. As drugs go, alcohol is still the leading killer, but it’s dealt with as it should be: as a health issue, not a law enforcement issue (unless the drinker is behind the wheel of a car or beating up his spouse and children). Drunks go to AA, not prison. Why the same standard doesn’t apply to people addicted to narcotics is one of those absurdities that keep prisons full and press conferences in local law enforcement agencies allegedly newsworthy. Which brings us back to today’s news conference.
I actually thought there’d be something newsworthy there, possibly tied to the sheriff’s rather poignant if ridiculously out of proportion arrest of his own son last week on a prescription-drug possession charge. Turns out Fleming’s is not the only sheriff’s son in that mix: Putnam Sheriff Jeff Hardy had a similar story about his son, arrested on a trafficking charge. Poignancy can easily turn to distaste when these law enforcement chiefs—Hardy more than Fleming—so readily play up their sons’ arrests as part of the tough-on-crime scenario.
Here was the news: For the last four months, police in a 10-county area in Northeast Florida have been conducting “Operation Growing pains” (don’t ask), “an aggressive 14-week investigation targeting North Florida prescription drug traffickers,” according to an FDLE release. The operation netted the arrest of 135 individuals and the seizure of “almost 17,000 prescription pills and more than $3.6 million.” That dollar figure in the news release is at odds with the one in one of the two charts, which lists the money and assets seized at $4.34 million. There’s little explanation or context about the figures, though the number was narrowed for the operation in St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler Counties, where 1,361 pills were seized, and the total value of pills, assets and currency seized was put at $26,895. That’s in 14 weeks’ work.
Forgive the skepticism, but $26,895 was a few days’ worth of work for a mid-level drug pusher in the old crack days. It’s not a lot of money or value in drug terms. And 1,361 pills is what your average assisted living inmate ingests in a couple of months’ sentence, assuming the normal prescription-pushing rate by his or her local doctor.
It got worse. The chiefs then announced the three-county arrest of 33 individuals. That’s the three-county share of the 135 arrested in Northeast Florida. We were handed two sheets with the names of those arrested. No addresses. Just the names, their age, and the charges. We asked how many were from Flagler. “About a third” was the best answer we got.
There was something odd about those names. They looked too familiar. Joseph Bourke. Erin Bracken. Justin McCalligan. Dennis Kraemer. They looked familiar because they were. Back at my desk later in the afternoon I looked up an old story and realized that some 15 people on that list were arrested in Flagler County on Sept. 16, when the sheriff’s office did another one of its big announcements, calling it—back then—“Operation Script Club.” So here we were, summoned to an elaborate news conference with two sheriffs and a third sheriff’s chief of staff, plus these entirely superfluous but big-titled men from FDLE and ATF, only to be given recycled arrests under a new name. Talk about drug-war scenario repeats. And it’s not even summer yet. Are the state’s law enforcement agencies that hard up for validation? Apparently so. The line-up of big and titled men took a few basic questions but disappeared with impressive speed when the questions went past the approved scenario.
Again, this isn’t to downplay what problem does exist out there, but when law enforcement manipulates and hypes up events with war-sounding names (Operation This and That) without a whit of context and quite a bit of recycling, there’s a credibility problem, too. This being a 10-county dog and pony show, it could very well be that Fleming was himself the victim of a little manipulation, doing his bit in an FDLE production, though he appeared very happy to be playing host to the three-county portion of that circus earlier today. I like the guy and respect the hell out of him. But today wasn’t his finest hour.
To top it off, there was a good deal of exaggeration with the word “epidemic,” used by all the top guys there today in connection with this latest prescription-drug scourge. Their source: The Florida medical examiners’ mid-year report on drug-related deaths. FlaglerLive reported on the 2009 findings here, when 13 deaths in the three-county area were attributed directly to Oxycodone (the fourth-lowest number in the state’s 23 medical examiners’ districts), as opposed to 16 deaths directly attributable to cocaine, for example. There was no question in 2009 and there still isn’t in 2010 that, when it comes to narcotics, prescription drugs are now the leading drug-related killer in Florida as a whole, to the exclusion of alcohol. But an epidemic?
Here are some figures from the 2010 mid-year report: From January to June, in Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties, Oxycodone was found to be in the system of 18 dead individuals—not one of them with Oxycodone exclusively in the system. In other words, the drug was used along with others. Death was attributed to Oxycodone in nine of those cases. That’s in the three-county area. A problem? Absolutely. An epidemic? Not quite. Hydrocodone is another lethal pain killer: Four deaths attributed to that pill (one more than deaths attributed to morphine, four less than deaths attributed to methadone, the heroin substitute.) Then there’s Alprazolam, better known as Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug: 11 deaths directly attributable to that one in the three-county area.
Keep in mind that if a death is attributed to one of those drugs, it doesn’t mean the victim was in a back alley shooting up. Nor does it mean the victim was doing something illegal—buying the drug illegally or using it illegally. Accidental drug overdoses—20,000 of them in 2004—are due overwhelmingly to lax prescription rules, lax patient oversight and to mistakes, not malicious or criminal intent.
There’s no malicious intent behind local sheriffs’ attempt at better controlling the effect of pill mills that feed addicts and habits, either. But lack of malice doesn’t mean law enforcement isn’t misguidedly confusing matters. There’s a place for law enforcement cudgels. But the abuse of prescription drugs is a public health matter, the more so when the drug involved aren’t in and of themselves illegal, and their pushers are the doctors next door and pharmaceutical companies sponsoring children’s essay contests. Pill mills thrive in Florida because the Florida Legislature is itself unwilling to strictly—and at first expensively—regulate doctors and pharmacists’ pill-pushing. As such, it’s complicit in a scheme law enforcement agencies have too simplistically and self-servingly framed as a battle between cops and traffickers.
Lack of malice also doesn’t excuse manipulative hype. Narcotics aren’t always in the shape of pills. Today’s news conference was an example. And we were there to swallow it whole.