On the same day that Michael Jackson died of a prescription drug overdose, so did 11 other people just in Florida alone. That's the average for the Sunshine State, anyway. Eleven people a day. If you're counting, that's roughly 6,000 overdoses - just in one state - in the time between the deaths of the "King of Pop" and Heath Ledger, the last time the media became obsessed with prescription drugs.
These are the sort of calculations we were doing while editing "The OxyContin Express," the premiere episode of this season of Current TV's original documentary series "Vanguard." Part of our mission in "Vanguard" has always been to shine a light on stories that no one else is telling, and despite the considerable media glare surrounding Michael Jackson's death, we knew as we sat putting our piece together that the larger story of prescription drug abuse in America remained untold.
In the U.S., more people are now abusing prescription drugs than heroin, cocaine and ecstasy combined. For "The OxyContin Express", we traveled to ground zero of the epidemic, South Florida, the "Colombia of prescription drugs."
Florida has become a pill popper's paradise and the main source of an illicit prescription drug pipeline. Lax laws and little oversight have led to a booming number of storefront pain management clinics that liberally dispense potent narcotics.
The drug of choice for a growing number of users and traffickers is Oxycodone, best known by the brand name OxyContin. It's basically heroin made in a lab.
Doctors in Florida prescribe Oxy at five times the national average, which is a little less surprising when you consider that the state is home to the top 50 dispensing physicians of the drug in the entire nation.
This flood of pills has had a devastating effect in Florida, where three times as many people are now overdosing from prescription medication than from illegal drugs.
"As in the '80s and '90s cocaine was a big thing, now prescriptions have just exploded," says Sgt. Richard Pisanti of the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
But unlike cocaine, the source of these pills isn't a Colombian drug lord or some shady dealer on the corner, it's a doctor's office. In fact, Florida has gained such a reputation for the ease with which pills can be acquired that addicts and traffickers now travel from a thousand miles away just to visit the ballooning number of cash-only for drugs-only pain management clinics.
In the piece, we expose a bustling pill pipeline that stretches from Broward County to the hills of Appalachia, where prescription drugs, particularly Oxy, are in high demand. Hopping a flight on what's been dubbed "The Oxy Express", a low-cost airline popular with pill addicts and dealers transporting drugs from Florida, we arrived in Kentucky, the state that leads the nation in prescription drug abuse. According to law enforcement and emergency room doctors there, the majority of the pills they are seeing these days are coming from doctors 1,000 miles away.
Addicts in Kentucky described to us how once a month they'd pile into a car, drive 18 hours to Broward and visit as many pain clinics as they could in a day or two. They'd return from Florida with thousands of potent pills for personal use and resale at a 10-fold profit to support their habit.
"Pablo Escobar couldn't have had it so good," says Kentucky Lt. Governor Daniel Mongiardo who has made closing Florida's "pill mills" a personal crusade. "It's basically 'come here, give us cash and we'll give you a prescription'."
In Greenup, Kentucky, a quiet community that locals describe as "Mayberry", we witnessed the devastating impact Florida's pills have had on rural communities throughout Appalachia. Everyone has been affected, from self-described "pill billies" serving time in overcrowded prisons to families that both deal and inject Oxy.
"We're drowning in pills from Florida," says Greenup County Sheriff Keith Cooper, a small town lawman taking on a growing national epidemic. "These aren't doctors, they're drug dealers with degrees."