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Official: Prescription drugs as dangerous as illicit ones

| Friday, June 17, 2005

MANOR -- Prescription drug abuse can kill you just as quick as illicit drugs. That was the message Lawrence J. Fuksa, narcotics agent for the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General, delivered to more than 200 employees of Klingensmith Drug Stores yesterday at Lenape Heights Golf Course.

Speaking at the behest of Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi and the Armstrong Narcotics Enforcement Team, Fuksa said he has another message for those who forge or alter drug prescription forms: "We'll meet soon, I'm coming after you."

Fuksa emphasized the importance of digital photography in combatting prescription fraud.

"We had a case just recently," he said, "where an area man altered a legitimate prescription to obtain an additional quantity of a pain-killing drug. Not only was the pharmacy clerk alert and spotted the very subtle alteration, but we obtained a number of very clear digital images of the man from the time he entered the door to the time he left. And by the way, thanks to the clerk's diligent observation, he left empty handed."

Fuksa stressed the importance of closely inspecting every written prescription presented and urged all pharmacies to use digital cameras to record everyone entering and leaving a pharmacy. He said photographs are also invaluable in curtailing employee thefts and provide police with solid evidence in court cases.

Fuksa said some people arrested for forging or altering prescriptions are not hardened criminals, but ordinary people who have had a prior medical problem for which a pain killing medication was prescribed, and became addicted.

"These people are breaking the law," Fuksa said, "and they will be arrested and charged with whatever crime is involved. All such cases are felonies, but in a case like that, a judge will usually sentence them to a mandatory rehabilitation program. However, we have other people we call 'mules.' These people travel around the county, or an area of several counties, presenting forged, altered or phony prescriptions to obtain drugs. These people will do jail time if convicted."

Fuksa said that "mules" usually work for a person who has a lot of money to buy the drugs in hopes of reselling them on the street for a substantial profit. He said the most commonly abused drug is oxycontin and said the morphine-based drug sells for about $1 a milligram, or $20 to $40 for a single tablet.

Chief County Detective Paul Rearick, who spoke following Fuksa, said oxycontin is sometimes used as a substitute for heroin, or may be traded for pure heroin. Andreassi added that while heroin remains the number one drug problem in Armstrong County, his drug taskforce is concerned about a growing trend in prescription drug abuse and the potential for violence by users desperate to obtain drugs.

Fuksa said many types of pain-killing drugs are coveted by addicts, but oxycontin is to date at the top of the list.

"There is a new prescription drug, Palladone, that will soon make its debut," he said. Palladone contains Hydromorphone, a controlled substance derived from morphine."

Fuksa said that Palladone is three times more potent than Oxycontin and may well vie with oxycontin as a target for drug users and dealers. He urged pharmacy employees to not only rely on digital photography, but to train themselves to get accurate descriptions of suspicious persons, and be prepared to call Armstrong 911 and his office.

Fuksa covers drug investigations in an eight-county area, including Armstrong, and said he is available to speak to area businesses or groups about prescription drug abuse and illicit drugs. He may be contacted by calling: 724-284-3413.

Klingensmith CEO Joseph Cippel said his company already uses digital camera surveillance and will begin to implement Fuksa's additional security recommendations and training immediately.

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