CLEVELAND, OH—At a drug diversion summit in Cleveland today, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, announced a newly-operational federal Tactical Diversion Squad (TDS) to combat pain pill trafficking across Northern Ohio. Tactical diversion squads are special forces established by the Drug Enforcement Administration to crack down on illegal drug trafficking—including “doctor shopping” and “pharmacy hopping,” “pill mills,” and prescription forgery attempts.
At a March 2011 hearing of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, Brown urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to work with Ohio’s law enforcement agencies to establish operational tactical diversion squads in the state. Following a verbal agreement to work together to combat prescription drug abuse in Ohio, Brown sent a letter to Holder urging him to establish two Ohio-based tactical diversion squads to help the state crack down on “pill mills” and prescription drug-related crimes. The Cleveland squad became operational in February 2012. Brown and Kerlikowske were also joined by Cleveland Police Sergeant Sammy Morris to discuss how these new federal resources will help crack down on prescription drug abuse in and around Cleveland.
“Prescription drug abuse cuts across all Ohio communities—small, large, wealthy, poor, rural, urban, and suburban. Just a few months ago, U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach’s office busted seven drug dealers right here in the Cleveland area for forging prescriptions for pain medication. It’s clear that our state needs additional support when it comes to combating pain pill trafficking and abuse,” Brown said. “Last year, I learned that Ohio—despite having an enormously high rate of prescription drug abuse—had no operational tactical diversion squads. The closest squads were in Michigan and Kentucky. And I found that to be unacceptable.
“That’s why I asked Attorney General Eric Holder to get these special forces out and working across Ohio,” Brown continued. “Today, Ohio now has two, fully-operational tactical diversion squads. These squads work with local and state law enforcement to stay one step ahead of drug users and abusers. So thanks to the arrival of the Cleveland Tactical Diversion Squad, prescription pill traffickers and dealers in our area are being put on notice.”
“The establishment of DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squads is an important step forward in combating prescription drug abuse in America,” Kerlikowske said. “We look forward to continuing our work with federal, state, and local partners to reduce the toll prescription drug abuse takes on all communities.”
There are currently 47 operational Tactical Diversion Squads across the country. According to the Justice Department, this year in Florida, the Miami Tactical Diversion Squad worked alongside eleven other Squads, along with state and local agencies, to help break up hundreds of “pill mills.” Pills mills serve as conduits for substance abusers and dealers to get easy access to drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin. The drug busts—known as Operation Pill Nation I and II—resulted in more than 100 arrests, including 35 doctors and 3 pharmacists, and millions of dollars’ worth of assets were seized.
The Prescription Drug Epidemic in Ohio
Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in Ohio. Ohio is second only to Florida in the number of oxycodone prescriptions filled, and Ohio’s death rate due to unintentional drug poisoning increased more than 350 percent from 1999 to 2008. In 2007, unintentional drug poisoning became the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio, surpassing motor vehicle crashes and suicide for the first time on record. Prescription pain medications, such as oxycodone, morphine, and methadone, are largely responsible for increasing numbers of overdoses and deaths in Ohio. Community leaders across Ohio have expressed concerns about the increasing problems with drug abuse. Part of the increase in abuse is due to drug diversion (the unlawful channeling of regulated drugs from medical sources to the illicit marketplace of pain medications), doctor shopping (using multiple prescribers), and pill mills (doctors, pharmacies, or illegal pain clinics that prescribe and dispense prescription drugs inappropriately or for non-medical reasons or personal financial gain).
Both the Strickland and Kasich Administrations have advocated for thorough and comprehensive approaches to combat prescription drug abuse. Governor Strickland established a task force that produced strong recommendations for combating this issue, and Attorney General Mike DeWine has announced several initiatives aimed at cracking down on pill mills.
Brown’s Work to Combat Prescription Drug Abuse
Brown is working to combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse and Medicaid fraud in Ohio on all fronts. Last year, Brown joined a bipartisan group of Senators in introducing legislation to reauthorize the National All Schedules Prescription Electronic Drug Reporting (NASPER) Act, a prescription drug monitoring program critical to combating the abuse of prescription drugs. Sen. Brown has also joined his colleagues in introducing legislation that would prevent teenagers from gaining access to discarded prescription drugs by permitting individuals and long-term care facilities to deliver unused drugs for safe disposal and by expanding drug “take-back” programs.
He is also the author of the Stop Trafficking of Pills Act (STOP Act), which would require national adoption of a Medicaid Lock-In program and directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a similar program in Medicare. Lock-In programs prevent convicted prescription drug abusers and high-risk patients from visiting multiple doctors and pharmacies to obtain and fill prescriptions. This enables the close monitoring needed to prevent high-risk patients from personally abusing or selling opioids on the taxpayers’ dime. In May 2011, Brown appeared before a Senate committee to discuss Ohio’s prescription drug epidemic and to call for the implementation of a Federal Medicaid Lock-In program.
Brown also cosponsored the Strengthening and Focusing Enforcement to Deter Organized Stealing and Enhance Safety Act (SAFE DOSES Act). This bipartisan bill would prohibit stealing, fraudulently obtaining, or trafficking a medical product, such as prescription drugs; increase penalties for “fences,” when someone knowingly purchases stolen property and later resells it in the legitimate market; enhance civil penalties for profits made off of stolen products; increase criminal penalties when death occurs as a result of a stolen substance; and put pharmaceutical theft under the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Correct Organization) law, which has been effective in breaking up organized crime.
Brown’s office convened a first-of-its-kind roundtable in March 2010 that brought together federal officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, state officials from the Attorney General's office, Department of Health, and Department of Jobs and Family Services, and community leaders to discuss the issue of drug abuse in southern Ohio.