EL PASO, Texas - Nearly three-dozen people were arrested this week in connection with prescription-drug rings in the El Paso area.
The DEA, DPS and numerous other government agencies had been working the case for more than two years. It culminated with the arrests Monday night.
The 33 defendants are accused of falsely obtaining, stealing and altering prescriptions, said Special Agent in Charge Joseph Arabit of the DEA El Paso Field Division. Arabit also said the defendants were involved in "doctor shopping" -- when one patient tries to get multiple doctors to prescribe the same drug.
"In some instances, they actually called the pharmacy," Arabit said. "The pharmacy techs and the pharmacists are very cooperative in that regard. They let us know when they get a suspicious call. We go out and investigate it. That is one way that a case starts."
Prescriptions included ingredients commonly found in pain killers like Vicodin, Xanax, Oxycontin and Lortab. Prescription-drug abusers will often later transition to heroin to get the same high for less money, Arabit said.
"Controlled prescription drugs can be just as dangerous and just as addictive as street drugs, such as heroin, meth amphetamine and cocaine," Arabit said.
The investigation involved more than 300 prescriptions and 32,000 pills of controlled substances. Doctors are criminally involved in only between 1 and 3 percent of prescription-drug fraud cases -- none were involved in this investigation, Arabit said.
About one-quarter of first-time drug users started by abusing prescription drugs, according to DPS Regional Commander Carey Matthews.
"Prescription-drug trafficking and fraud have a grievous effect on the safety of our communities and the well-being of Texans," Matthews said. "With the continued coordination between our local, state and federal law-enforcement partners, we will continue to combat the individuals who commit these crimes."
The 34th Judicial District Attorney's Office is prosecuting the case. A spokeswoman said defendants face second-degree felony charges, which could carry a $10,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.