UPDATED: Bruce Grant, Drug Czar to Be Sacked by Rick Scott, Is Concerned About Pill Mill Enforcement

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Bruce D. Grant is the director of the governor's Office of Drug Control, and he found out by email last month that Rick Scott's transition team had decided to eliminate his four-person office to save half a million dollars a year. Meanwhile, the state is still struggling to finalize the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, or "Pill Mill Bill," legislation a decade in the making that seeks to stem the tide of unregulated pain clinics, most of which are in Broward County.

The Department of Health will be responsible for taking the helm of drug-control policy under Scott, but Grant says he's worried that's it's not high on their list of priorities. Also below, Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti weighs in.

The Juice: Have you been with the office of drug control since its beginning?
Bruce D. Grant: The office was formed under Jeb Bush in 1999, and I came in 2001. I served from 2001 through 2005 as the chief of law enforcement, then as chief of staff. In 2005, I resigned the position and went back into the Army to serve in Iraq. In 2009, I was hired by Charlie Crist to head the department.

Nationally, the conversation on drug policy seems to have changed away from a war on drugs to a more holistic approach. Have you seen changes in Florida that mirror this?
Florida has had a drug policy since this office started in 1999. If you look at the history of drug policy in the U.S., you'll see it was heavy on law enforcement in the 1970s and '80s. Getting rid of the illegal drug supply was job number one. But it should be a balanced approach. That's what ONDCP [the national drug czar's office] has advocated as well. We want people to go through a treatment regimen, so we no longer have the demand that fuels sales and the crime that comes along with that.

Have you been in a position to push back against law enforcement officials who want a more enforcement-heavy approach?

Florida law enforcement has been very good about embracing our approach. Just talk to any narcotics detective that's been on the job more than a day and he'll tell you that the answer is in prevention and treatment. They understand that very well.

Your agency has worked to address the problem of pill mills operating under the radar, especially in Broward County. How big of a part of the agency's work was the prescription drug program, compared to other focus areas?

Our office first recognized a prescription drug problem back in late 2001, around the time that Oxycontin became known as a drug of abuse, especially in Kentucky and places like that. We began a drive for prescription drug monitoring legislation back in 2001, raised it during the legislative session in 2002, then legislators introduced it into the Florida House and Senate every year beginning in 2002 until it passed in 2009. That's some determination and persistence right there.

Why'd it take so long?
Because there was great resistance. The real question is, why did it pass? Because we got to a tipping point. In 2008 is when the pill mill explosion really took root down in South Florida. We had national coverage, and we were essentially embarrassed in the press by the fact that we had drug tourists coming to Florida to pick up prescription drugs, and we had nothing to stem that tide. Those people had prescription monitoring programs in the states from whence they came.

Who's taking over the program now that your office is closing?

We had to work hard with the Department of Health, which wasn't enamored with this [prescription drug monitoring] bill. Now they have the responsibility under law to implement it... This whole issue needs to be given special attention. It kills seven people in Florida every day. You'd think it would be at the very top of the Department of Health's agenda.

You don't see it there?
No, sir, I do not.

Why wouldn't they support this kind of thing?
They don't have a history of being strong proponents of being substance abuse reduction. They see their mission as different: swine flu, H1N1, HIV, and things like that. The difference is, we were a very small, proactive, and strategically located office. We used the governor's office to get some influence in the Legislature and other departments. We didn't just sit here and contemplate our navel and think about drug policy; we actually went out and did stuff.

Like what?
We finally got the prescription drug bill passed. Also, this year, we passed the "meth block bill" [to limit excessive sales of pseudoephedrine]. That's two major pieces of legislation.

What are some of the most tenuous advancements you've made on the prescription-drug front? Does anything deserve extra attention to make sure it survives the changeover?

The bilil has had a few problems. It was supposed to take effect in December 2010 but did not make it because of a bid protest [to set up a privately run database of pain prescriptions]. Then there was a rebid, and a contract has been awarded, but the loser has again protested. Now it has to be heard by an administrative judge.

There's no state money allotted to the prescription monitoring program. Instead, you've relied on a private foundation. Do you expect that funding to be obtained under the incoming administration?

The problem is, it was our office that created the private nonprofit foundation that raised over half a million dollars already, so I do have reservations over whether that will continue. The foundation board's still intact, and they'll continue to move forward raising funds. But if there's not strong support from the incoming administration, that could certainly be in jeopardy.

Did you meet or consult with Rick Scott before he decided to eliminate your office?

No. I reached out to people on his transition team over the last two months but have not gotten any return calls, and no one's contacted me. We were all notified [of the decision to close our office] through an email.

Where you and your colleagues headed?

I've been working hard to get jobs for all of those folks and have been fairly successful. After that, I'm going to try to get a job for myself.

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The Juice also spoke with Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti about the disappearance of the Office of Drug Control, with which he's worked closely to control prescription drug abuse. Now he'll be working with the Department of Health. Given Grant's skepticism about the Department of Health's commitment to drug-abuse prevention, we asked Lamberti if he feels the same way. Lamberti was more reserved. "I have not seen the final plan," he said. "They haven't shared that with us yet."

But he seemed confident that prescription-drug control efforts would continue. "Just because the office is gone doesn't mean the problem is going away," he said.

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Update 5:10 p.m.: The Department of Health has responded to Grant's criticism that drug enforcement is not one of its priorities with the following statement:

The Department of Health would not agree with these statements. The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is a Department priority and we have dedicated the necessary staff and resources to carryout the requirements of Florida Statutes. The Department is in active solicitation for a provider to implement the prescription drug monitoring system. Further, the Department is actively seeking funds to support this initiative.

The Department takes the misuse and abuse of prescription medications, as well as their unlawful distribution in Florida seriously. As such, we have supported law enforcement agencies around the state in their local efforts to combat this unfortunate problem.

In addition, the Board of Medicine has supported prescription drug monitoring program legislation and written letters to the Governor supporting such legislation for years.

 


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