By Paresh Dave
metro@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

Rising prices and increased demand for prescription drugs on the black market have turned addicts, nurses and even a postal worker into alleged thieves.

Reports of people illegally obtaining prescription forms and pills continue to rise at what law enforcement leaders say is an alarming rate.

And now state and local drug enforcement officers are scrambling to deal with a $71 million state budget cut over two years that could shut down the state bureau in charge of enforcing narcotics laws.

“This is the fastest growing drug problem we have in California and the country,” said Kent Shaw, acting chief of the 250-member state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. “It’s absolutely essential and critical that our prescription drug monitoring program be a part of fighting it.”

Shaw said the attorney general’s office remains in talks with Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and the Legislature about reversing what he called “tragic” cuts.

Law enforcement officials say the declining funding, along with inadequate technology, is threatening to loosen the chain of defense against a boom of unusual and costly drug crimes.

Voluntary reports of stolen prescription pads across the state have risen from three in 2004 to 120 in the year that ended June 30, according to the bureau.

Tom Lenox, a supervisor at the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego office, said his agents have arrested or plan to arrest more than a dozen people in one case in which a nurse allegedly faked 157 prescriptions on forms she stole from a doctor’s office.

In Sacramento, the U.S. attorney’s office expects a postal worker from Wilton charged with 30 counts of stealing prescription drugs from the mail to soon plead guilty in the case.

Reports of controlled substances missing or stolen from California pharmacies rose 44 percent over three years, to just under 500 in 2010, according to Virginia Herold, executive officer of the California State Board of Pharmacy.

Herold added that during the past five years what used to be losses of 2,000 pills now might be more than 20,000 pills.

“It’s not this or that,” said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Opferman. “It’s apples and oranges all in the same basket.”

One of the bureau’s responsibilities is overseeing the 50 companies across North America that are allowed to print prescription pads for California doctors.

Several printer company owners said they’ve alerted the bureau when pharmacists report that someone tried to fill a prescription that seemed to be on a counterfeit form or when doctors say a nurse is suspected of fraudulently ordering forms.

Pending state legislation, Senate Bill 360, would make it mandatory for printers to report theft or loss of pads within 24 hours. The bill also would require all printer employees to be fingerprinted.

Justice Department spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill said the proposed changes are “in recognition of the growing, lucrative nature of the prescriptions in the black market.”

But if the budget cuts hold, it’s unclear who would oversee printers, Herold said.

The bureau also manages the state database for tracking sales of prescription drugs, such as Valium and OxyContin. By querying the system, a doctor can make sure a patient isn’t trying to quickly get the same prescription multiple times from different doctors.

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