Deadly Combinations

The drugs that are killing the most people right now didn't originate on the street, but with a prescription.

The body of a prescription drug overdose victim arrives at the medical examiner's office in Largo.

 Prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs now kill about 500 people a year in the Tampa Bay area, triple the number killed by illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Prescription drug overdoses killed 433 people in the bay area in 2006, up from 339 the year before. Though 2007 figures aren't complete, the area is on pace for about 550 deaths. That means prescription drug overdoses are likely to overtake car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death here.

"The numbers are pretty staggering," said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.

Statewide, prescription drug overdoses caused 1,720 deaths in 2006, up about 40 percent from just three years earlier. In 2007, the state was on a pace of about 2,000 deaths.

"It's almost like the same case every day. Multiple drugs, history of drug abuse -- at least once a day," said medical examiner Jon Thogmartin.

 Medical examiner Jon Thogmartin has made observations about people who die as the result of prescription drugs. "They don't take care of themselves, their home. (They are) barely employable. Generally, that's the type of person we see dead."

Michael Wood, 39, displays a picture of his fiance Sharon Simpson, in the Largo home he shares with his mother. Simpson died of an overdose on Jan. 1, 2006. "She had a lot of pain all the time," Wood said. Those pain pills were like candy to her."

"This has become an epidemic," says Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell, center, here speaking to a drug offender at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. "It was cocaine in the '70s, crack in the '80s. Now it's the abuse of pharmaceuticals."

Debbie Curry of Seminole holds a picture of her daughter Marissa Curry, who died at 24 from a prescription drug overdose. "You do have people who have legitimate needs and they should be able to get their medications without having to suffer," she says. "But if you take one pill, you don't take four."