State and federal officials have charged 23 people in connection with the illegal distribution of prescription drugs, mainly the narcotic oxycodone.

The cases highlight what one federal official called “the new faces of drug organized crime.”

“Organized criminal entities that are doing nothing but trying to obtain, and put on the street, prescription drugs that are being diverted for a variety of different reasons,” Jack Riley, a special agent with the Chicago office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said Thursday. “And they do it for one reason, just like every drug dealer does: for money. They do not care what happens, who dies, who overdoses. And it’s a growing issue throughout the Midwest.”

Many of the defendants in the cases announced Thursday are accused of fraudulently using BadgerCare benefits to get the drugs, paying only $1 while BadgerCare picked up the rest of the cost at taxpayers’ expense, authorities said.

The type of oxycodone mostly used in these cases typically sells for about $30 per pill on the street, said James Bohn, an assistant special agent with the Milwaukee office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Everybody thinks they understand drug dealing. Everybody thinks it’s a transaction in the middle of a street corner somewhere,” Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said. “What we’re finding out today is, there’s a lot of people out there making money on drugs.

“They don’t all fit the profile that you might have in your mind about what a drug dealer is or what it’s like. It covers a very wide socio-economic swath in the community, and it is one that requires a response with law enforcement, not just public health.”

The defendants in the cases are part of three drug rings, officials said. Some obtained, sold and filled illegally obtained prescriptions; others allegedly distributed the drugs to street vendors in the Milwaukee area, according to a news release by the DEA under the U.S. Department of Justice.

The defendants are between 19 and 59 years old, and 20 of them are Milwaukee residents. One of them, Gloria Blackmon, is a Milwaukee substance abuse counselor, authorities said. Another, Dimitris Joyner, 41, is a pharmacy technician who illegally filled fraudulent prescriptions, according to the charges. Some cases involved stolen prescription pads, which were fraudulently filled out.

In prescription drug cases around the country, for instance in Florida, doctors were involved as well, said James Santelle, U.S. attorney with the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

The growing problem has spurred additional prosecution resources locally. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said that in April 2010 he dedicated one person in the office exclusively to cases involving illegal distribution of prescription drugs because of an “alarming rise” in the number of prescription drug-related overdose deaths nationwide.

Chisholm said a report from the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office showed 163 people died in the county from drug overdoses in 2009. Last year, the number was 149. So far this year, 106 people have died from drug overdoses, Chisholm said. Most of those deaths involve a lethal mix of oxycodone and illegal drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, he said.

“It’s sometimes very easy to look at vials, look at pills and say, ‘They’re clean, they’re neat. They don’t come in baggies, they’re not leaves. They’re not white powder in a plastic bag. They seem to be legitimate.’ They’re not. Just the opposite,” said Santelle, the U.S. attorney. “These are some of the most potent drugs out there in levels of addiction, and the levels of problems they’re causing cannot be overstated.”

To monitor illegal prescription drug activity, 36 states use a monitoring program that tracks drugs prescribed to individuals. The Wisconsin Legislature passed such a bill in May 2010, but the program has yet to be implemented by regulatory agencies, Chisholm said.

“The state has an obligation to do a better job of monitoring and dispensing,” he said. “I am urging the governor to expedite implementation of the prescription drug monitoring program. I think this would be an incredibly valuable tool that we could use to interdict many of these rings that are in operation in our community right now.”

The charges were a result of a months-long investigation and a weeklong enforcement initiative at five area businesses, which included a search at Laabs Pharmacy, 911 N. 27th St. In addition to federal authorities, the investigation also involved Milwaukee police.

Federal officials said the pharmacies did not adhere to federal regulations related to the ordering, handling and legal distribution of pharmaceutical drugs. It was unclear whether the pharmacies would be facing consequences as a result of the cases, but Chisholm said all pharmacies cooperated in the investigation.

“There is no indication that any of the pharmacies were aware of the problem,” he said. “That is why they need this (prescription drug monitoring) system up and running as soon as possible.”

Chisholm said authorities are prosecuting a total of 35 suspects.

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