Federal prosecutors may not have been able to convict two doctors in the overdose deaths of eight pain-clinic patients, but law enforcement in Palm Beach County is winning the larger fight against pill mills.
A jury acquitted Drs. Cynthia Cadet and Joseph Castronuovo of causing the deaths and conspiring to distribute controlled substances but found them guilty of money laundering. The doctors worked for Executive Pain in West Palm Beach and American Pain, which operated in Broward County and Boca Raton before moving to Lake Worth. The clinics were part of a $40 million illegal prescription painkiller operation run by twin brothers Christopher and Jeff George of Wellington.
The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the IRS and several local law enforcement agencies shut down the drug ring in 2011. They arrested 32 people, including the Georges and 13 doctors, nine of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Jeff George is serving 15 1/2 years; Chris George is serving a 17 1/2-year sentence.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Oxy Alley, was one of several the Palm Beach County Multi-Agency Diversion Task Force, formed in 2010, has participated in to combat prescription drug abuse. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said the number of investigations has dwindled significantly.
He credits a 2010 state law that prohibits felons from owning pain clinics, sets stricter criteria for doctors who prescribe and dispense pain medication and restricts advertising by pain clinics. The law also requires pain clinics to register with the Florida Department of Health and submit to inspections.
Sheriff Bradshaw also cited the state’s prescription drug monitoring program. It maintains a database that keeps track of certain drugs to prevent doctor shopping: illegally obtaining large amounts of drugs from several sources. Palm Beach County once had more than 100 pill mills. Now, Sheriff Bradshaw said, there are just a handful.
Sadly, there’s a new potential scourge: synthetic marijuana. The product has sent youths across the country to hospitals, complaining of racing heartbeats, intense hallucinations and psychotic episodes. Sheriff Bradshaw said laws banning synthetic pot, marketed as herbal incense, haven’t been as effective as those regulating painkillers because sellers have switched to fake weed in liquid form. As soon as one formula is banned, dealers slightly change the chemical composition and start selling a new one.
Florida was once the nation’s pill mill capital. Addicts and dealers flocked to clinics owned by unscrupulous people like the George brothers. They took advantage of the state’s lax pain clinic rules. That’s no longer the case, thanks to tighter regulation and aggressive law enforcement. Florida must apply the same prescription to the synthetic marijuana problem.
for The Post Editorial Board