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270 pain pills per person: Tennessee county under investigation by DEA

FOX 17 News

CLAY COUNTY, Tenn. (WZTV) - They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but one Tennessee town may disagree.

Clay County, Tennessee, has received national attention after a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation revealed its pharmacies purchased enough drugs last year to provide 270 pain pills for every man, woman, and child living in Clay County.

It's the job of DEA agents to monitor how controlled substances move throughout the country. Their databases red flag places and physicians that are high prescribers, and that's what brought them to Clay County, which sits about 30 miles north of Cookeville along the Kentucky border.

Home to just 7,800 people, it doesn't have much by way of businesses.

Its only city, Celina, has a few antique stores, Churches of Christ, diners, and four pharmacies.

All of those drug stores are located a stone's throw away from one another.

While they may look like small businesses, according to the DEA, last year those four pharmacies bought 1.5 million pain pills.

“Basically it comes out to being around 270 pills per person, for every man, woman, and child, which is impossible,” says Martin Reed, Division Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration.

It's that high volume of opioids for such a small population that caught the attention of federal agents.

Tara Anderson owns and operates Anderson Hometown Pharmacy, one of the Celina drug stores unexpectedly inspected by the DEA back on August 27th.

“I haven’t done anything I’m trying to hide,” says Anderson.

During the visit, agents pored through patient records, figuring out what's been prescribed, versus what drugs are in stock.

“I never saw that coming, I never ever saw that coming, not here,” says Anderson. “It was a stressful time, it was a hard time on everybody.”

She says there's a need for pain medication in Clay County because of an aging workforce of manual laborers, who are now feeling the physical effects of their jobs.

“I don’t want our county to look bad because that’s not who we are, we’re a group of really nice people, we have that southern hospitality.”

Anderson claims all of her customers are sent by local prescribers, but Clay County doctors FOX 17 News spoke with say it isn't them.

“I know the four doctors in the county and none of us prescribe hardly anything,” says Dr. Gilbert Ghearing. “Most of the prescriptions filled here are prescribed by doctors outside the county, we don’t have any pain clinics here.”

Getting to the bottom of the high number of prescriptions, and holding area doctors and pharmacies accountable is the main mission of the DEA investigation into possible criminal activity.

“We’re not really sure where this is headed, but we can tell you it’s not normal for a small population to be giving out that many pills in such a small area,” said Reed.

So where does the small county go from here?

Depending on what their audit of these pharmacies and physicians reveal, consequences could range from a simple administrative fine, to criminal charges, to the feds shutting these pharmacies down.

The DEA says the results could come as soon as the next few weeks.

In the meantime, it's worth noting the DEA is working to save lives in Clay County and around the country.

There were 72,000 drug overdoses last year, that's four times the number of people killed by homicide.

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