Editor’s Note: The Times Record continues its series of reports on prescription drug abuse.
FORT SMITH — To curtail the state’s most emergent drug threat, the Arkansas office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration created a tactical diversion squad in April 2012 that focuses on prescription drug abuse.
The squad, made up of one group supervisor, three special agent positions and six task force officers, operates out of the state DEA office in Little Rock and works with law enforcement agencies all over Arkansas, said Bill Bryant, assistant special agent in charge.
"In Arkansas, hydrocodone is probably the most abused drug, just as it is nationwide. Oxycodone or the stronger pain medications that are Schedule II, they’re highly abused too," Bryant said. "We tend to focus on the ones that are highly abused."
Cpl. Paul Smith of the Fort Smith Police Department’s Narcotic Unit said his office stays in close contact with the diversion squad.
"They forward us information if they get complaints up in this area. If it’s something that’s going to be an in-depth, long investigation, we forward it down to them," Smith said. "But we haven’t had any up here that we really haven’t been able to handle ourselves."
Agents with the squad use a variety of methods to curtail prescription drug abuse, focusing primarily on drug distributors.
"Just like narcotics investigators investigate distributors of cocaine, marijuana and heroin, we investigate distributors of prescription pills," said special agent Anthony Lemons, group supervisor. "We work organizations just like any other narcotics investigator would work on the investigation of a cocaine trafficker."
The emergence of the diversion squad reflects a change in law enforcement made to counter the evolution in criminal drug activity, Lemons said.
"We’ve worked cases where guys discontinued distributing cocaine and only started distributing prescription pills because there’s more demand for it," Lemons said. "It’s a huge threat. It’s only second to marijuana in abuse — even before cocaine, or heroin or anything else."
Abusers can get their hands on prescription drugs in a number of ways, Bryant said, keeping the task force busy all over the state.
"Unfortunately, we do run into crooked doctors. They’re arrested just like any other profession," Bryant said. "Between doctor shopping, thefts, pharmacy break-ins — any way that they can get them — especially with drugs like the Oxycodone pill, they’re going for about a dollar a milligram. So if you’ve got an 80-milligram Oxycodone pill, that’s selling for $80 on the street for one pill."
In 2011, the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 304, which authorized the creation of the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. The program went into effect March 1 and aims to prevent prescription drug abusers from getting multiple prescriptions for the same drug.
"It’s in the very preliminary stages of getting off the ground," Arkansas Drug Director Fran Flener said. "They’re collecting information from all the pharmacists to establish a database, so that when a physician goes online they will be able to see any scheduled prescription that a patient of theirs has been given within the state of Arkansas."
Flener said authorities are doing what they can to keep up with the state’s fastest-growing drug problem.
"This trend has come on so fast and increased so fast that everybody is in a huge learning curve. But I do feel like awareness of the problem is at an all-time high within the state," Flener said. "It’s just an ever-expanding circle of people who have some sort of involvement with this problem."