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Reporter's Notebook: Lack of Laws Lead to Prescription Drug Dealing Epidemic

Of the 80 infants in the neonatal intensive care unit at All-Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla., 24 of them – almost thirty-percent – were born addicted to whatever it was their mother was addicted to. In their very first days of life, they’re fighting withdrawal.

“The drug they need is morphine, because we're replacing what they have been getting throughout the pregnancy. You can’t expect babies to go cold turkey,” Dr. Jeane McCarthy said, explaining why babies in the NICU are being given the powerful narcotic morphine. 

They shake uncontrollably, scream almost constantly and can’t eat. “You see an infant going through withdrawal,” McCarthy said. “It’s something you won’t forget.”

They are given morphine to help ease their pain – and save their lives. If the babies were to go “cold turkey,” McCarthy said, they could die.

It is a tragic scene – and one reminiscent of the "crack baby" scourge of the '90s, when children of crack-addicted mothers exhibited similar distress. It’s what drove home to the nation the destructive nature of crack. But this isn’t as bad as the crack baby epidemic, according to McCarthy. In some ways it is far worse.

Crack babies, she says, got over their symptoms in a few days. It takes a month or more to wean a baby whose mother was addicted to Oxycodone or some other narcotic off the drug. And where long-term studies of crack babies found no significant lasting effects of their addiction, the jury is still out on narcotics.

Florida is worst in the nation when it comes to prescription drug abuse. It got there – according to state Attorney General Pam Bondi -- because there was no law to monitor prescriptions of narcotic drugs. It became ground zero for the so-called "pill mill" phenomenon, bogus "pain clinics" with unscrupulous doctors taking cash to write prescriptions and feed addictions. Some addictions began innocently enough, with painkillers prescribed to treat injury after a car accident or surgery. The pill mills take it to a new level.

“These are drug dealers wearing white coats,” Bondi said. “They have armed guards at the door, they are a cash-only business. They are a horrible place and we are shutting them down.”

Florida passed a prescription drug monitoring plan in 2009, but incoming Gov. Rick Scott put it on hold. It finally went into effect at the beginning of this month. Bondi insists it has had a positive effect, but that it was too long in coming.

“We absolutely have the biggest problem because we had no tough laws. No one was able to pass tough legislation – it was ridiculous," she said. "We had pill mills on every street corner basically, in our state, and it had to stop."

The effect of having no laws up until now has created a law enforcement problem of mammoth proportions. Bob Gualtieri is the incoming Sheriff in Pinellas County, which includes the city of St. Petersburg.

“From a law enforcement perspective, it’s the most serious public safety problem that we face, a threat that we face as a community,” he says.

Has his department been able to make a dent in the problem? "Not right now," he says. "We're trying."

Fox News rode along with the Sheriff Department’s narcotics unit for two days as they targeted "patients" at several pill mills. Police would watch someone go in, then follow them as they had their prescriptions filled. One young woman they followed went to two pharmacies looking for 180 pills of 30mg Oxycodone. She was told by both that they could not fill the prescription.

The narcotics unit pulled her over a short time later and found what they said was various drug paraphernalia in her purse, in addition to other pills for which she did not have a valid prescription.

The goal of such actions is to “put the heat” on people who frequent these pain clinics. Many come from other counties or states to fill prescriptions. Some are for personal use – others deal in the drugs they procure. The business is lucrative.

“They get about 300 or 400 of these pills, and they’re buying them for about a dollar a pill. They turn around on the street and you sell them for $17 a pill, or if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you take it to Kentucky and sell if for $30 a pill," Gualtieri said.

The net effect is a nationwide epidemic of drug abuse that has eclipsed the crack cocaine problem. Crack, says Gualtieri, was mostly an inner-city problem. “This problem crosses all walks of life, crosses all socio-economic classes. Crosses all races and gender, national origin, age.”

New statistics on the prescription drug epidemic back up Gualtieri’s claim. Next week, the Centers for Disease control is releasing a report that is truly shocking. Fox News will have that for you on Tuesday.

John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.