In recent months, Florida was home to half of the nation's new pharmacy applications, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports.

A new Florida law aimed at curbing the state's prescription-drug epidemic by banning most doctors from selling painkillers at their offices is raising concerns that rogue physicians and entrepreneurs are moving into the pharmacy business.

The number of applications filed with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to open new pharmacies in Florida has surged, according to data recently obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

In recent months, Florida was home to half of the nation's new pharmacy applications, DEA reported.

For the first half of this year, 217 applications were filed with DEA for new pharmacies — excluding chains — in Florida. During the same period in 2010, there were 159 such applications. From Jan. 1 to July 1, 2009, there were 127 applications.

"It's alarming," said Sen. Mike Fasano, the New Port Richey Republican who sponsored the anti-pill-mill legislation that prohibits doctors from dispensing some of the most abused drugs from their offices.

Though DEA won't publicly release detailed pharmacy-application information, officials say they won't be surprised if some of these new businesses are tied to pill mills or unscrupulous medical practices.

"It tells you that the criminal mind, the criminal out there, will do anything they can, regardless of putting a life at risk. They don't care about life. If they did, they wouldn't be doing what they're doing."

Years of lax state laws and a proliferation of pain-management clinics helped make Florida a hospitable place for prescription-drug dealers and abusers.

Last year, 90 of the top 100oxycodone-purchasing physicians in the nation were from Florida.

Legislators took action, and earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott signed the comprehensive anti-pill-mill bill, which also toughens criminal and administrative penalties against doctors who illegally prescribe drugs.

Those who closely follow Florida's prescription-drug epidemic say it isn't surprising that the number of new pharmacies is on the rise now.

"It goes back to the historical battle of law enforcement fighting drug smuggling," said Danny Banks, assistant special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Orlando region.

"When you have a demand for a product, you will always find someone who will continue to find a way to supply that product."

Lucrative industry

Pill mills — and prescription-drug trafficking — have been a lucrative industry in Florida.

Drug agents estimate some pill mills may bring in as much as $25,000 a day — much of that in cash. If a doctor sees 100 patients a day at $250 each, the physician could make $1 million annually.

Prescription-drug dealers and addicts — some of them dubbed "pillbillies" by law enforcement — travel to Florida from other states to get their fix.

Crime leaders, known as "sponsors," recruit people to doctor-shop at Florida's pain clinics, where the visits and drugs are paid for with cash.

A painkiller that goes for a few dollars on the streets of Central Florida could be sold for up to $40 in states such as Kentucky, which monitors patient prescription history, considered a deterrent to doctor-shopping.

If there are loopholes to be found in Florida's new laws, pill-mill operators and suspect doctors will try to find them, officials predict. ~ ~