The early-morning raids in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi are the final stage of an operation launched last summer by the DEA's drug diversion unit, a senior DEA official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe details of the ongoing investigation in advance of a public announcement.
Before Wednesday's raids 140 people had been arrested and agents expected to make another 170, the official said. Suspects in the DEA's "Operation Pillution" include doctors and pharmacists, the official said. The crackdown is focused on the illegal sale of painkillers, including the powerful opioids oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Among the facilities targeted Wednesday is a Little Rock, Arkansas, pain clinic not far from the DEA's local field office.
The official said investigators found that the clinic is protected by a security guard and another employee is often stationed outside to direct traffic when patients start showing up around 6:45 each morning.
In Mobile, Alabama, agents are targeting two doctors accused of running multiple pain clinics, the official said.
The official said 24 doctors, pharmacies and others have surrendered their DEA registration numbers as part of the ongoing crackdown. A registration number is required to prescribe certain medications. The agency is moving to revoke prescribing permission in at least 24 other cases, the official said.
People arrested in the ongoing crackdown face a variety of state and federal criminal charges, including distribution of a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
Prescription drug abuse and overdoses involving opioids have been a growing concern for the DEA and public health officials. According to the Centers for Disease Control about 44 overdose deaths a day involve prescription opioids.
DEA prescription data show that Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were among the top 11 states for prescribing hydrocodone in 2014.
Law enforcement has also warned that people who become addicted to prescription painkillers often turn to heroin when it becomes too difficult to get a prescription.
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