Florida’s Heroin Epidemic and Increase in Overdose Deaths

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Florida’s Heroin Epidemic and Increase in Overdose Deaths

There’s no doubt – news on the current nationwide heroin epidemic has gotten a lot of traction lately. We’ve been hearing about new legislation, treatment and prevention approaches, and the possibility of safe injection facilities opening in multiple states.

But much of the news has been centered around the rust belt states – that is, northeastern states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, and New Hampshire. But the truth is, it’s everywhere. In the south. In the west. In Florida.

When I was growing up in the 1980’s, I heard quite a bit about the cocaine problem in Florida. Indeed, documentaries such as “Cocaine Cowboys” detail much of what occurred, and it’s crazy. But that’s all in the past. There’s a new drug problem, and it’s the same one that is affecting just about every region in the country. It’s heroin, and prescription opioids.

The epidemic knows no race, gender, or socioeconomic limitations, because it was borne of a trend that began in 1990’s and continued into the millennium. OxyContin, Vicodin, and all those wonderful painkilling drugs were becoming en vogue. They were touted as safe and non-addictive, despite little evidence – indeed, more evidence to the contrary.

Mexican drug cartels saw this coming. By the time the crackdown on opioid drug prescribing occurred, the country was thoroughly saturated with heroin. It’s simple supply and demand. And the war on drugs tends to target the supply – which does little to hinder demand. That’s why when one drug lord goes down, another pops up in his place.

Indeed, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office intercepted a major drug smuggling ring last fall. They seized $2.6 million worth of heroin, and arrested 17 drug traffickers. Law enforcement reports, however, that more traffickers have stepped up to fill the void.

The Statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 63% increase in heroin use from 2002-2013. In Florida, the state medical examiner reports that heroin detected in autopsies more than doubled between 2013-2014.

Overdose DeathsIn southwestern Florida, emergency medical calls, emergency room visits, and overdose deaths related to heroin are all increasing.

Naloxone, the anti-dose drug, had over a 60% increase in usage between 2014-2015, according to Collier EMS. EMS calls associated with heroin or opioids tripled during that time, as well.

Lee Memorial Health System’s ER saw just 15 heroin cases in 2010, and 121 in 2014. In addition, in 2014 there were another 165 cases of opium poisoning.

In Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, there were 47 heroin overdose deaths last year. Another 346 overdose deaths were related to prescription opioid medication. Granted, it’s still not as bad as New Hampshire, but it’s a trend that is worrisome and not dissimilar to what other states are experiencing.

Still, There is Hope…

Policymakers are in debate over the current status of drug addiction in the United States, and how best to confront it. The war on drugs is deemed by most to be a failure – an effort to arrest users and curb supply, which just ends up putting a lot of people in prison.

The sad truth is, the new debate has come largely due to the changing face of addiction, in addition to the increase in numbers. That is, it’s not just inner city junkie drop-outs anymore. It’s housewives. It’s professionals. I can’t help but think that if it was still just homeless prostitutes and inner city street kids, we might not be having this conversation.

But in any case, physicians are finally starting to curb their painkiller prescribing frenzy.  Current research reveals that these drugs aren’t terribly effective long-term, can result in addiction, and are probably doing more harm than good. Other alternatives are being encouraged, such as physical therapy and non-opioid pain relievers.

John Hopkins University recently published a study suggesting that Florida had 1000 less painkiller overdose deaths in the last 2.5 years than if the state hadn’t intervened by cracking down on pill mills and doctor shopping.

Also, the Obama administration and Congress are busy working on bills which would provide funding for greater availability of naloxone, as well as education, treatment, and prevention programs.

New Treatments

Some facilities are encouraging abstinence and are instead customizing non-medicinal approaches for patients. Medication-assisted rehab programs are also having positive results.

For example, centers are combining therapy and counseling with a drug which block the effects of opioids, such as buprenorphine and naltrexone. Patients who experience this well-rounded treatment strategy report less cravings, and are staying in treatment longer.

Naltrexone is also being administered in the form a 30-day injection, called Vivitrol. In any form, naltrexone and naloxone are non-habit forming, have no notable side effects, and do nothing if opioids aren’t present. Basically, there are nearly perfect drugs to treat addiction. They work by extinction – meaning that they block the effects of opiates, so that the user’s brain stops responding to the drugs in the desired way.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Related: North Carolina Experiencing Record Increases in Heroin Deaths

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