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How Sheriff Fleming and FDLE Are Manipulating Press and Public Over Pill Mills

| December 21, 2010

fdle sheriff don fleming pill mills florida

Duck: the show's about to start. (© FlaglerLive)

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.

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.

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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.

Pierre Tristam

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12 Responses for “How Sheriff Fleming and FDLE Are Manipulating Press and Public Over Pill Mills”

  1. Orion says:

    This is not a new concern/ topic or social problem .. Having been in the Healthcare Industry for a number of years, it was not uncommon to come across patients going to multiple physicians in different towns/cities to gain access to large quantities of Rx drugs. The patient would feign a health problem, go to a number of physicians , get a 2-3 month supply and be on his way. He/she even used their home address, as he was submitting them to the healthcare reimbursement system. This meant they gotr the pills for free.. In one particular case, if the person was actually using the pills for his “health proble”, he’d have consumed 100+ pills/day.. The problem was that the only source of common ground, was at the healthcare payor, as opposed to a central location that sorted all Rxs distributed by the pharmacies. At this time law enforcement was oblivious to a problem, and could care less. One person was selling the pills at $25/each and having a very good second income. I believe he is now an elected official at the federal level..probably having paid his tuition through law school with the proceeds…

  2. Orion says:

    I forgot to mention, that the Sheriff was at a local Christmas party last night telling all who would listen that FCSO had a drug bust in The Hammock, the other day, where a 68 year old was caught with 60+ pounds of Mary Jane, along with multiple hand guns and some automatic weapons. Oh, did I fail to mention he was also a repeat convicted felon? Looks like he won’t have to worry about housing and food for the rest of his life..

  3. PC MAN says:

    Great article Mr.Tristam. Ive always been intrigued by the alcohol vs illegal drug controversy, I have as well as most people have seen more ruined lives,marriages,careers and health from alcohol as opposed to illegal drugs. Maybe it’s the conspiracy guy in me but I have always thought the spirits industry is a major funder or coaxer in the “war on drugs”.
    There was a a great show recently about the war on drugs and I was stunned at the amount of racism behind it. Apparently the minorities at the time (African American,Hispanics,Asians,Native American) had their own ways of getting high so they passed laws making these substances illegal creating the war on drugs.

  4. NortonSmitty says:

    One thing that’s never mentioned is the role of the big pharmaceutical companies in this charade. In the ’90’s the patents ran out on the first generation of opiate-based pain meds, Percodan and Percocet being the best known ones. They sent their best chemists into the labs and told them that for the next generation of pills, all of the addictive agents they previously tried to remove, this time we put in as much as we can, and quadruple the price. Worked like a charm. Sales are through the roof (The High their stockholders are addicted to).

    Starting in the early ’90’s with Vicodan (Even Brett Farve got hooked!) and more so with the later Loritabs and Oxycontin (Rush Limbaugh’s drug of choice) they really raised the addiction ante. I personally know several people, mostly women, who started taking them thinking it was like taking a Vallium to calm them down and find themselves a few months later taking six or more every day @ $20 each! That’s a thousand dollar a week habit! Counting them up, three went on Methadone treatments to quit, one died and two lost everything and are basically homeless. But still buying Watson Pharmacuticals most profitable concoction ever.

    Ask any cop, they’re seeing people addicted they have never seen before. It’s so powerful there are Grandmothers holding up drug stores when the 60 pills they get from medicare doesn’t quite last til the end of the month anymore for some strange reason. And you can’t tell me this isn’t by design.

    So we do the dance like the one above and pretend we’re Serious and Concerned and Doing Something. But funny, unlike all of the previous “epidemics” we’ve seen, there is no Federal money coming to the state and local police to set up task forces and raids and such like we’ve seen for weed and coke and other bad stuff. Call me a cynic, but I believe it might have something to do with the millions and millions of dollars Big Pharma spends in Washington every year on campaign donations and lobbying. While people die, lose everything and are jailed for life for “Abusing” a legal drug, which is working as intended.

    Do we have a great Government or what?

  5. Flagler County Resident says:

    Wow, manipulating press and public???????? I do believe that the law breaking citizens of these counties did break the law. Therefore how was the press conference manipulating? Do you seriously think that pharmaceutical companies are giving perks directly to our and surrounding counties. When our local law enforcement does their job and even when it is one of their own family members that are arressted they are doing ALL they can in their power / line of work to stop this EPIDEMIC, yes I did use the word. Even if someone does not die from an accute overdose they are slowly killing themselves. You should probably do some more research and find out for yourself that it is an appropriate word to use. I imagine at some point while you were BLOGGING (too many opinions) not REPORTING you thought you were out of line because you made it a point to state you were not disrespecting anyone?? Well sir I am not disrespecting your article but I did want to stand up for Law Enforcement when they do all they can do to save lives . I strongly suggest that you put your efforts into finding a way to get more help for people that are addicted and less time complaining about the finest of people that willingly would give their life to save yours.

  6. Anonymous says:

    So tell me, is his latest cd handout about bulling the same one he was pimping a few years ago about monitoring your children’s internet activity.

  7. Alice says:

    Pierre, I like your article but I’m surprised you’re talking about Sheriff Fleming in a negative way, aren’t you afraid of some form of retaliation, I would. I may not agree with some of your comments but you definitely let people of Flagler county know the other side of whats going on around here. You have every right to voice your comments.

  8. wsh302 says:

    i wonder how many of those who were arrested are out already? the system is a joke and full of politics. one good thing for law enforcement is that this is job security.

  9. GottaBeTuff says:

    I’ll tell you…Making an attempt at educating the public about a known problem may be “pimping” in your ignorant world.

  10. GottaBeTuff says:

    The only attempt at manipulation I can see is from the article writer. Then again he is no fan of law enforcement and I believe no matter what good they attempt it is futile in his eyes.

  11. Emily says:

    The doctors and pharmacy who prescribe and fill the prescription need to be held responsible too or it will never stop.
    Offenders are given to many chances. Judges to easy. Our jails and prisons do not rehabilitate and there are to many privileges for inmates. Flat screen tv’s, dvd players, gaming systems????? All at tax payers’ expense.

  12. mariodigir says:

    The only real issue here: the ludicrous laws and those who manipulate and abuse there enforcement for personal gains. Go catch real criminals and leave regular people alone. Mind your own business and keep your noses out of other’s personal affairs. Your grandstanding may fool some, but we’re certainly not all fools.

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