About four years ago, an investigator in the coroner’s office in Calcasieu Parish (Lake Charles) began noticing some disturbing evidence whenever he arrived at the scene of a death due to drug overdose: lots of empty prescription drug bottles for addictive painkillers, all from the same pharmacies and same doctors in Southeast Texas.

At the same time, some 35 miles away, a related phenomenon caught the eye of Orange County Sheriff Mike White. A new pain management clinic in town was drawing fifty to seventy cars a day. Lines formed outside the building, even on rainy days. On a hunch, White began gathering evidence about hydrocodone prescriptions filled in his town of 18,000 residents. In 2004, 1.5 million prescriptions were filled for the highly addictive painkiller. By last year, that number had climbed to 8 million prescriptions.

After a phone call from Calcasieu Parish authorities and other conversations with law enforcement authorities in Harris and Jefferson Counties, White realized his little town on the bayou was a key part of a flourishing trade in highly addictive prescription drugs dispensed by questionable clinics and pharmacies operating along the I-10 corridor from Houston to Louisiana.

Acting on the mounting concerns of law enforcement authorities, Sen. Tommy Williams won passage today from the Senate Health and Human Services Committee requiring doctors to report to a state database all prescriptions for Schedule III drugs, which include what law enforcement authorities call the Trifecta Cocktail: Vicodan (hydrocodone), Xanax (alprazolam) and Soma (carisprodal). The information will be available to doctors who want to make sure their patients are not obtaining multiple prescriptions.

While the Texas Board of Medical Examiners and the State Pharmacy Board can revoke the licenses of professionals acting unethically or illegally, law enforcement officials say the state agencies are ill-equipped to take on the flourishing trade in prescription drugs that has sprung up on the I-10 corridor.

Highway patrol officers are stopping increasing numbers of DUI offenders, often in cars filled with individuals in possession of multiple three-month prescriptions, all issued on the same day from different pain management clinics.

Lt. Billy Chapman of the Calcasieu Parish Narcotics Task Force visited Houston yesterday to see how the operation worked. An undercover officer went inside a clinic, filled out a few forms and paid $70 in cash. A doctor appeared and asked him where he felt pain. In his neck, the officer replied. On a scale of one to 10, how bad is it? the doctor asked. About eight,the undercover officer replied. The doctor turned around and faxed a form to a pharmacy, conveniently located across the street. The officer went to the pharmacy, a squalid office with blacked out windows and a retractable drawer were he was instructed to place his identification. Then a voice informed him that they had just run out of drugs, and told him to proceed to a pharmacy down the street. The officer obeyed, and in less than half an hour, he was in possession of three months’ worth of pills with a street value of $1,400.

Meanwhile, his back-up officers saw two cars with Louisiana plates deliver about eight young men in their twenties, all of whom filled prescriptions. Fliers advertising the pain clinics promise that patients do not have to supply their medical records “until the second visit.”

The statistics are astonishing:

Jefferson County attributed eight deaths to hydrocodone overdose in 2005. Last year, the county experienced 58 deaths due to hydrocodone abuse.

Orange County’s drug deaths account for 16 percent of all fatalities, up from 10 percent two years ago.

Calcasieu Parish logged 34 drug overdose deaths in 2004, 42 in 2005 and 50 in 2006. So far this year, the parish has had 20 overdose deaths, including 5 just in the last week.

White says the drug trade is affecting all age groups, from “high school to grandma,” but the largest group seems to be middle-aged, working people. In fact, employers in Orange have brought him in to give training seminars to supervisors on how to recognize, and deal with, addicted or abusing workers.