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MIAMI (Reuters) - State and federal agents raided pain clinics throughout south Florida on Thursday in a crackdown on "pill mills" that they said dispensed medically unnecessary oxycodone -- an often abused pain-killer -- to patients recruited via the Internet.
Six clinic owners and operators were indicted on charges they conspired to illegally dispense more than 660,000 doses of oxycodone, netting $22 million in profits.
The prescription pain-killer can be crushed and snorted or dissolved and injected to get an immediate high, and has a massive potential for abuse leading to addiction and potentially fatal overdoses, federal authorities said.
"According to recent estimates, Florida prescribes ten times more oxycodone pills than all other states combined," U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a news release.
Demand for oxycodone has grown to epidemic proportions in south Florida and other parts of the United States, where drug dealers can sell a 30-milligram oxycodone pill on the street for $10 to $30 or more, the indictment said.
The crackdown, called "Operation Snake Oil," targeted the storefront pain clinic owners and operators who marketed prescriptions through more than 1,600 internet sites.
The clinics required immediate cash payments and relied on falsified urine tests and "over-aggressively interpreted" medical imaging to justify prescribing medically unnecessary drugs, the indictment said.
Local news reports quoted neighbors as saying zombie-like patients often lined up outside the clinics in the morning, waiting for them to open.
"Prescription drug abuse is our country's fastest growing drug problem, and pill mills such as those in Florida are fueling much of that growth," said Michele Leonhart, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Three of the defendants were also charged with conspiring to launder illegal profits and 26 counts of money laundering.
The indictment seeks forfeiture of $22 million of cash and assets, including real estate, a trailer park, two Lamborghinis and 44 other vehicles and boats.
In addition to the six defendants charged in the indictment, doctors and workers were arrested in the raids at clinics in three counties encompassing the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area.
Reporting by Jane Sutton; editing by Mohammad Zargham