By Shelly Whitehead
Post staff reporter
Local law enforcement's battle against pervasive prescription drug crimes got a big boost recently from new prescription-tracking legislation and pharmaceutical diversion investigative squads in southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky.
Officials say the developments are key to stemming the growing illegal trade and abuse of prescription drugs, which the White House Office of Drug Control Policy says are second only to marijuana in their rate of abuse nationally.
In Northern Kentucky, efforts to increase the ranks of those investigating so-called "pharmaceutical diversion" crimes have taken shape with the inception of the area's only Pharmaceutical Diversion Unit at the Boone County Sheriff's Department in July.
Almost simultaneous to the formation of that team, federal funding was awarded for a specialized squad in Ohio, where Hamilton, Warren and part of Clinton County have been designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The new designation means the lion's share of $137,000 in annual federal funding will go to fight prescription drug crime in the Southwest Ohio HIDTA Pharmaceutical Diversion Initiative.
The initiative's coordinator, Warren-Clinton Drug Task Force Commander John Burke, said it unites officers from four agencies -- the Cincinnati Police Department's Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, the Warren-Clinton Drug Task Force, the Drug Abuse Resistance Task Force and the Drug Enforcement Administration's Pharmaceutical Diversion Task Force -- to investigate and prosecute law breakers.
The new units, taken along with a soon-to-be-signed Ohio prescription-tracking law similar to one Kentucky already has, are expected to make significant gains against a crime that experts say happens all around us all the time.
"Pharmaceutical diversion is kind of funny because it's going on in every community, but it appears not to exist unless you go after it purposely," said Burke, considered among the nation's experts in pharmaceutical diversion investigation after he started Cincinnati police's unit in 1990 with federal grant money.
"Before Cincinnati got that grant, very few (pharmaceutical diversion) arrests were being made. "But after they got the grant, we were making 250 arrests a year within a few years. So it doesn't get the attention other crimes do, but the overdose deaths related to prescription drugs far outweigh those from cocaine and other drugs."
Bobby Pate and Bruce McVay, the detectives assigned to Boone County's unit, agree with Burke's assessment of the pervasiveness and deadliness of the abuse.
Through relationships with local pharmacies and use of the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting -- KASPER -- database, they say they've grown increasingly aware that the problem is far greater than the resources dedicated to combating it.
Pate and McVay say the database, which Kentucky led the nation in establishing in 1999, is indispensable to such investiga-tions. Under Kentucky law, pharmacists, veterinarians and others who dispense scheduled drugs must report key information about prescriptions they fill.
In Ohio, Burke and others expect to reap the rewards of a new tracking system to be set up when Gov. Bob Taft signs the Dangerous Drug Database bill passed by the Ohio legislature on Dec. 7.
Efforts are under way in at least 17 other states, as well as nationally, to establish databanks similar to Kentucky's.
Each new addition to the local arsenal increases the region's ability to fight pharmaceutical diversion crimes. For instance, although the new HIDTA designation only sends federal dollars to fight pharmaceutical diversion in three Ohio counties, Kentucky officers say it will help them, too.
"If anybody here gets a HIDTA designation, then I'm going to say it brings opportunity closer for everybody," said Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force Director Jim Liles, who has talked of seeking a similar designation for Northern Kentucky.
Likewise, Burke said Boone County's Pharmaceutical Diversion Unit lends support to those investigating similar crimes in the Buckeye State.
In fact, Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Specialist Andy Brown suggests that once word gets out about Boone County's new unit, it might need to expand.
"We get a lot of doctors and pharmacists in Kentucky who call us," Brown said.
"As soon as they find out Northern Kentucky has a unit that does that, I think they're going to be swamped."