I-Team: Prescription drugs kill more in Clark County than illega - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Rx drugs kill more in Clark County than illegal drugs

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Albert Oganesyan Albert Oganesyan
Kent Bitsko Kent Bitsko
Dr. Mel Pohl Dr. Mel Pohl

LAS VEGAS -- Prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in Nevada. In Clark County, more people overdosed on pharmaceuticals last year than all the major street drugs combined.

The I-Team discovered some of the pills being dealt on the street are coming from the very people who have been hired to safeguard them. It's a form of what's called "drug diversion" and it happens when healthcare employees -- who have access to powerful prescription painkillers -- divert them for their own use or for sale on the street.

When doctors and pharmacists are charged, it makes headlines. But drug theft by lower-level employees may be more widespread and on the rise.

Meet Albert Oganesyan, a former pharmacy technician at a Von's store in Summerlin. His picture may look familiar to some. He was arrested in 2008 in connection with a Eurasian crime ring that was committing credit card fraud and identity theft. Oganesyan took a plea bargain in that case, admitting to conspiracy and theft.

Under Nevada law, his certificate as a pharmacy technician should have been revoked. However, it wasn't revoked because Oganesyan failed to mention his convictions when he renewed his application.

"Obviously, if they lie on that application there's no way we know. We do not do background checks or have the resources to do that. So, we rely on them telling us the truth," said Dr. Larry Pinson, the executive director for the Nevada Board of Pharmacy.

Oganesyan did lose his pharmacy technician certification a few months ago after he was arrested for stealing the narcotic pain killer hydrocodone from the pharmacy where he was employed. His arrest report says Oganesyan worked at the pharmacy only one day a week yet he's suspected of diverting 44,000 doses of hydrocodone over a period of 10 months.

The pharmacy estimated its loss at $100,000 based on the retail cost of the drugs, but the street value of the pills was likely much higher.

"And they cost the pharmacy somewhere between a nickel and a dime, I think, per tablet. Maybe a little more, but on the street they're worth probably close to $20 a pill," Pinson said.

At that price, the street value of what Oganesyan allegedly stole would total nearly $1 million. The drug charges against Oganesyan were dropped in exchange for his plea of guilty to conspiracy to commit larceny. He was sentenced to less than a year in the county jail.

"It's very, very, very difficult to get a trafficking (case) on someone that is dealing in prescription drugs," said Kent Bitsko, HIDTA Drug Trafficking Task Force.

Law enforcement officials say it's more difficult to prosecute prescription drug crimes than those involving street drugs because pharmaceuticals don't have the same stigma as street drugs and our laws tend to reflect that.

"It is something that you can go to the doctor and get so it must not be as bad. They think this, even though they are buying it from Joe Schmo on the street, who is selling it out of his pocket," Bitsko said.

Police and regulators have been cracking down on the problem. The Board of Pharmacy has already disciplined more pharmacy technicians in the first half of this year as it did in all of 2013. Pharmacies are increasingly using surveillance cameras and inventory monitoring systems to prevent employee theft. The steps taken by pharmacies and law enforcement to restrict access to prescription drugs seem to be having their own side effect: It's driving up the price of pain pills sold on the street.

"And as we get smarter about controlling prescription medications -- in other words it's harder to get these -- the logical next step -- I mean it's a crazy logic but the logical next step is a cheaper and more potent drug and that's heroin," said Dr. Mel Pohl, an addiction specialist.

There is an increase in heroin use in Clark County. Experts say it's like a perverse game of Whack-a-Mole where you put the hammer down on one aspect of the problem and another pops up somewhere else. In this case, efforts to restrict the flow of prescription pain killers have led addicts to a cheaper, more powerful street drug.

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