SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - The Drug Enforcement Administration arrested 22 doctors and pharmacists along with 280 others in what the agency is calling the largest ever prescription drug operation targeting dirty doctors, pharmacies and pill mills. Operation Pilluted has been going on for the past 15 months in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas.
"Even though there is a Dr. in front of their name, they are just like dope dealers on the corner," DEA Assistant Special Agent in-Charge Danny Comeaux said.
Prescription drug abuse is being labeled an epidemic, killing one person every 13 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We in law enforcement are committed to not only arresting and prosecuting those who break the law but also to saving lives," said U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis. "We hope today the indictment we announced and enforcement action that has taken place throughout the four states will help alert the public to the dangers of prescription drug abuse."
In an effort to stop the deadly trend, the DEA, along with state and local agencies, are going after what they call dirty doctors.
"They are no better than any other drug dealers that are in the alley selling dope on the corner," Comeaux said. "That's what these guys are doing. They violated their oath."
Law enforcement officials believe selling prescriptions for cash can be a lucrative business, which is why some are willing to risk everything. Many who cross over into the illegal drug market think their degree can help them outsmart the law.
"Some will limit the amount of pills they do," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Meynardie said. "Or, they will make sure they don't give the prescription out more than once a month. There is a variety of things we look at. They know about some of them. They don't know about others."
In the past 15 months, the DEA executed 21 search warrants in Mississippi and three other southern states, seizing 51 vehicles, 202 weapons and $404,828 in cash.
One of the alleged pill mills busted was in Waveland. Dr. Steve Morris and two others were arrested and are facing more than 500 years in prison if convicted.
"He was here in Waveland two days a week and doing pain management one day a week," Meynardie said. "He was, I think, an associate professor at a nursing school in Florida part time. Whether he set up this business initially in order to violate the law or it just worked out that way, I don't know."
"Kids and parents, they assume that a doctor prescribes it, so it's good. It's OK. This guy has gone to school," Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam said. "But, they are dope dealers and deserve to be in jail."
While some patients are fooled, others go to these doctors to get illegal prescriptions. They are also being prosecuted.
"We have been addressing that in our county, arresting people for doctor shopping," Adam said.
"The thing with these prescription drugs is it's pretty much a precursor to heroin and methamphetamine," Comeaux said. "A lot of individuals who get hooked on pills, down the line, they end up getting hooked on heroin, and that's the unfortunate thing here."
"I've been doing narcotic work for 15, 16 years. The only overdoses I've seen is in prescription drugs," Meynardie said. "Almost always it's combined with something else. You take a prescription pill, drink some alcohol or cocaine, and it will kill you. That's what we are seeing a lot of, and that's why we are focusing on it so strongly."
Until all illegal pill mills are dismantled, the DEA is notifying those involved.
"We have the time, we have the manpower and we have the resources, and we will put you in jail," Comeaux said.
Morris is scheduled to be in federal court Thursday for a detention hearing. We reached out to Morris' attorney for comment on the story. When we hear back from him, we will let you know.