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Franklin County "A Hub" For Illegal Rx Drugs

A Franklin County couple faces court hearings this week related to prescription drug charges. Prescription drug abuse is a major problem in Central Ohio. In the first part of a three part series, WOSU takes a look at the problem on the streets of Columbus and the challenges faced by law enforcement.

It's the wee hours of the morning, and a young woman in her twenties stumbles into the street on Renner Road in Hilliard. Backpack in tow, she walks into the path of a Franklin County Sheriff's Office patrol car.

She's incoherent, and deputies arrest her for disorderly conduct. The woman is 21-year-old Alexes Akers. Sheriff's deputies find more than $117,000 in cash in her backpack. Her husband, 25-year-old Christopher Akers, arrives to the scene and says the money is his. A search of his car turns up dozens and dozens of prescription drug bottles - about 5,000 pills altogether. Later that afternoon, at the sheriff's office, investigators are taking inventory. There's 101 prescription bottles spread out on a table, there's a half a dozen cell phones and a gallon-sized bag of cash. Chief Deputy Steve Martin oversees the criminal division.

"Almost all these pills were gotten from pharmacies in Florida, and they were almost all prescribed by a Dr. Heromin in Tampa Bay area. And he prescribed all of these? The vast majority of them, yes," he said.

We'll come back to the doctor who is thought to have prescribed these drugs later. First, let's take a look at the pills deputies took off the streets of Columbus. Martin says many of the drugs confiscated from the Akers were OxyContins. They're a synthetic opioid, basically manmade heroin. It's a powerful pain reliever given mostly to those with chronic pain or a terminal illness. It's highly sought after on the streets for recreational use or to feed addictions. These drugs generate big bucks. The sheriff's office said the Akers could have made as much as $150,000 from the pills they had.

Columbus Division of Police Detective Jeff Collins says the average dealer makes about $6,000 a day.

"It's a very lucrative business," Collins said.

That's a testament to what law enforcement officials say is a growing demand for illicit prescription drugs in Franklin County and the surrounding area.

While these drugs are legal and regulated they can be deadly.

Collins said he thinks the root of the prescription drug abuse problem is a misconception that the pills must be safe because they're federally controlled.

"They come from doctors and pharmacies so it's safe to take. Which in fact is totally opposite," he said.

The Ohio Department of Health reports unintentional drug poisonings increased more than 300 percent between 1999 and 2008. And in 2008, prescription opioids, like OxyContin, caused more overdoses in the state than heroin and cocaine combined. Prescription drug abuse has been labeled an epidemic in Ohio and around the country.

Chief Martin said he thinks prescription drugs always have been a problem. It's just that the drug of choice has changed. Twenty years ago it was amphetamines. Now it's opioids.

Lieutenant Shawn Bain is with the Franklin County Sheriff's Special Investigations Unit. He said he noticed an increase in prescription drug abuse about six years ago.

"I don't know if it's because of the amount of doctors prescribing drugs or the pain management clinics we're now seeing, or what the actual reason is. But I think it's probably all of the above," Bain said.

Bain said Franklin County is a hub for the illegal prescription drug trade.

"We're getting calls daily, if not weekly, of other counties calling us and saying, Hey, our guys are coming down from our county to your county to buy and then they're coming back to our county and selling to all the people in our county,'" he said.

The pills come from various places. Southern Ohio, Portsmouth particularly, where there were as many as nine pain management clinics in a town of fewer than 25,000 people. Drug dealers go where laws are lax. The sheriff's department suspect the Akers, the couple recently arrested, went to Florida.

The doctor's name listed on most of their prescriptions, Dr. Ronald J. Heromin, recently moved from Tampa to Broward County, Florida - notorious for pill mills - where doctors dish out prescriptions without much, if any, consultation. Heromin is licensed in Florida. The Franklin County Sheriff's Department has determined he is the source for thousands of pills trafficked in Franklin County.

Attempts to reach Heromin were unsuccessful. The doctor, at one time was a surgeon. But his bankruptcy attorney, Buddy Ford, told WOSU a car accident left him debilitated, unable to operate and broke. Ford was shocked by the allegations against his client.

Law enforcement said the prescription drug abuse problem is not easy to curb. Columbus Police Detective David Allen, who often works as an investigator in the narcotics division, said the most difficult part about prescription misuse is prosecution.

"You cannot possess crack cocaine. You cannot possess heroin. But you can possess an Oxycodone, Percocets, Valium, Xanax. And if you have a legal prescription to have these drugs, the only way you usually get them is if you get them to sell it illegally to you in an undercover capacity," Allen said.

And that, Allen said, takes time and lots of money.

Pill mills in Franklin County according to local law enforcement are few, very few, not like Portsmouth, and certainly not like Broward County, Florida. But Chief Deputy Steve Martin warned if laws don't change, the number of local pill mills could.

"I don't think we have quite that epidemic, but if we don't get a handle on it we will because it's profitable," Martin said.

Alexes and Christopher Akers, the couple arrested with 5,000 prescription pills, each have been charged with first degree felony drug possession and await a grand jury. Detectives say they also could be charged with felony drug trafficking.

On Tuesday, we'll take a look at someone who's battling an addiction to prescription drugs and the challenges they face overcoming the habit.