By Jane Sutton
MIAMI, March 14 (Reuters) - Florida's year-old crackdown on "pill mill" clinics has made significant strides in combating the illegal distribution of widely abused pain killing drugs, such as oxycodone, state leaders said on Wednesday.
"We've gone from being known as the 'oxy express' to being a role model for our sister states," said Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Division of Law Enforcement.
In February 2011, prosecutors called Florida the epicenter of a nationwide epidemic of prescription drug abuse. They estimated that Florida doctors prescribed 10 times more oxycodone than those in the rest of the states combined. The powerful pain-killer can be crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected to get a high, leading to addiction and overdoses.
Prosecutors blamed much of the problem on storefront pain clinics that sold medically unnecessary pain-killers for cash up front, often to out-of-state buyers who took the pills elsewhere for resale.
In March 2011, Florida created a statewide strike force to provide money, intelligence and investigative support to regional law enforcement teams set up to fight criminal distribution of prescription drugs.
In a news conference on Wednesday, Governor Rick Scott said the teams had taken nearly half a million pills off the streets and made 2,150 arrests, including 34 doctors. "We have had a dramatic change," Scott said. "We are now the model for the country".
The Office of Statewide Prosecution has seen a 42 percent increase in prosecutions of prescription drug-related crime, State Attorney Pam Bondi said.
Many of those arrested were clinic owners and "many more have simply closed up shop and left town," said Steve Casey, executive director of the Florida Sheriff's Association.
Before the crackdown, Florida had 90 the nation's top 100 oxycodone-purchasing doctors and 53 of its top 100 oxycodone-purchasing pharmacies. Those numbers have dropped to 13 of the top 100 doctors and 19 of the top 100 pharmacies, Scott said.
The number of pain clinics in the state has dropped to 500, from 800 in a year, he said.
The number of prescription drug-related deaths dropped by 8 percent over the previous year, down from 1,268 in 2010 to 1,175 in 2011. Prescription drugs still kill more Floridians than illegal drugs do, state officials said.
Florida also moved to quickly suspend the medical licenses of doctors who prescribe pain killers abusively, shortening the average time involved from five months down to just 30 days.
The crackdown on pain clinics has been so successful that the prescription drug abuse is shifting to other outlets, including wellness centers and weight loss centers, and to other states, including Georgia and Kentucky, state officials said.
(Reporting By Jane Sutton. Editing by David Adams)