Despite probe, prescription drug abuse worsening, authorities say

This video was introduced into evidence at the January trial in federal court in Alexandria of Donna M. George, a 47-year-old grandmother who was convicted of trafficking in prescription narcotics.
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

Donna M. George was a grandmother living in a gated community in Fredericksburg when she sold prescription drugs out of her kitchen -- while babysitting for her three grandchildren.

Witnesses at George's trial said she repeatedly sold them Percocet, methadone and oxycodone. Her grandchildren, 3, 5 and an infant, were watching television less than 20 feet away. "I have kids of my own, so it kind of made me real nervous," testified one witness, Patrick Barber. "But she acted like nothing was even going on."

George's conviction in January for drug distribution was part of a federal crackdown that is the largest investigation of prescription drug abuse in U.S. history. Since 2002, the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria has convicted 170 people of selling, prescribing or ingesting painkillers, with 10 more scheduled to plead guilty in coming weeks.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Cotton Candy, has snared seven doctors, 11 nurses and a county prosecutor. One doctor pleaded guilty to demanding sex for drugs; a nurse shot up Dilaudid outside an emergency room. Another defendant burned down her flower shop to get insurance proceeds for pills.

Yet for all the effort, prescription drug abuse continues to worsen in Northern Virginia and throughout the Washington region as demand for painkillers rises among teenagers and others, according to federal and local investigators.

"We're seeing remarkable increases in Percocets sold on the street, a tremendous increase in Vicodin. Oxy is off the charts," said Loudoun County Sheriff's Deputy Cuno Andersen, a member of the Cotton Candy task force.

The investigation has been criticized by patient advocates, who say Cotton Candy targets doctors prescribing legal drugs to people in chronic pain. Some question whether the eight-year probe -- which has involved more than 50 prosecutors and employs 15 to 20 full-time FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Northern Virginia police officers -- is worth the time.

"It's an enormous waste of government resources," said Ronald T. Libby, a University of North Florida political science professor and author of "The Criminalization of Medicine: America's War on Doctors." He argued that law enforcement "can't make a case for any kind of prescription drug epidemic."

Prosecutors strongly defend their work, saying they reacted to a growing problem and have taken millions of illicit pills off Northern Virginia streets, raising the black market price of the most powerful 80-milligram OxyContin pill from $40 a decade ago to $65 to $75 today. But officials cannot point to any evidence that prescription drugs are a bigger problem here than elsewhere.

Still, Northern Virginia has become the epicenter of the national crackdown on narcotic painkillers because it has an especially aggressive prosecutor's office. Among the most relentless in that office is Gene Rossi, a 21-year veteran who has overseen Cotton Candy through five U.S. attorneys.

"We're not aware of any prescription drugs investigation in other districts that begins to approach this level of scope and effort," said U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride. "We believe we've made a dent in the problem in this area. The word is out in the medical community."

The effort is getting stronger. The DEA's Washington division recently created a squad focusing on prescription drugs, and the Alexandria probe is intensifying its focus on new avenues: dealers who create phony prescriptions and who "doctor shop" to get pills from multiple physicians. George was involved in both.

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