As Missouri lawmakers begin a new debate on adopting a statewide database to track prescription drug purchases, the number of addicts coming here from other states to buy drugs continues to grow, according to the head of Franklin County’s drug task force.

Missouri is the only state in the nation that does not have a system to track drug prescriptions.

The Missouri Senate on Thursday held a hearing to discuss two bills proposed on the measure. One would let the Legislature approve the database while the other would make it subject to voter approval.

Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner, commander of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit, said he went to Jefferson City to address the Senate panel but the hearing was closed before he and more than a score of others were able to testify. Some of the people who sought to testify were parents who had children who died from prescription drug overdoses, he said.

The problem of pill shoppers coming from other states to Missouri came to light in Franklin County earlier this year when the task force arrested two men and a woman from Kentucky who attempted to fill multiple prescriptions for opiates and painkillers at several local pharmacies.

The three had gotten prescriptions for opioid medications from a doctor in Georgia, then came to eastern Missouri to get them filled to avoid being tracked in Kentucky’s data base system. That case was turned over to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

The suspects would target smaller, independently owned pharmacies to get prescriptions filled because the larger chain stores, like Wal-Mart and Walgreens, have their own internal monitoring programs.

Three pharmacies  — Hall’s Pharmacy at Krakow, Heartland Pharmacy in Union and St. Clair Rexall — were targeted by the Kentucky suspects in the past, Grellner said. The owners became suspicious and notified the task force which led to the arrests in January.

Grellner said during February, the task force learned that 16 different people came to Missouri to get multiple prescriptions filled.

Some had prescriptions filled at pharmacies in Gerald and Owensville, Grellner said, and they were arrested when police in Rolla were notified that they were headed there.

“They were told by a doctor at a pain clinic in Georgia to come to Missouri because we don’t have a PDMP (prescription drug monitoring program),” Grellner said. They travel along Interstate 44 from Springfield to St. Louis and stop at local pharmacies marked on a map, he noted.

Find Notebook

During that investigation, investigators seized a spiral notebook that contained addresses and phone numbers for pharmacies in Missouri, Grellner said.

It also contained information about pain clinics up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Maryland.

The suspects use Google Earth to locate actual addresses in Missouri, then tell pharmacies that they are staying in the area on business.

In the more recent case, Grellner said all of the prescriptions came from pain clinics in Columbus, Ga., and Norcross, Ga. Last week, the DEA reported that a doctor at the Norcross clinic surrendered his license in the prescription investigation.

“We thank all the local pharmacies for their help in exposing these crimes,” Grellner said. He said pharmacies that have not been affected yet should be suspicious of people bringing in third party presciptions — those that are written by doctors in one state for people from another state then brought here to be filled.

When they notice those, they should contact the task force “immediately,” Grellner said.

Grellner has been pushing for a PDMP for a number of years but the efforts have been blocked in the Legislature.

“Even if a bill is passed this year, it will be some time before it could be up and running,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, criminals from other states are coming to Missouri to buy their prescription drugs, Grellner said.

“It’s scary because these people are addicts and they’re driving on our highways,” he commented.