- Lulu Ramadan Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
While Palm Beach County drug overdoses and deaths climbed last year, the area’s unofficial recovery hub, Delray Beach, saw overdoses dwindle.
With sober homes and treatment providers shutting down and moving out, police expanding outreach efforts and the city and state tightening restrictions on the recovery industry, Delray Beach helped repress its reputation as the recovery capital of the country.
There were 65 fewer overdoses in 2017 and eight fewer fatalities than in 2016, police data show.
The eye-opening figure, however, came from November — just 17 overdoses in Delray compared to 77 in November 2016. And in October 2017, there were 25, a huge decrease from a record-high 96 the previous year.
“Although I’m very excited about this, and it’s very great for the community, I want to be cautious,” Delray Police Chief Jeff Goldman said. “One bad batch of heroin and our numbers could double again.”
Even with the subtle decline, there were 625 drug overdoses reported in 2017, with 57 resulting in death, police figures show.
Palm Beach County, however, is bracing for higher numbers when the 2017 figures are released this year by the county’s medical examiner reports. But the jump won’t be nearly as drastic as in previous years, said Palm Beach County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Bell.
Delray Beach police attribute the drop in overdoses in part to a new position created in June. Goldman fought for two years to hire an outreach specialist, whose role is to offer resources to recovering addicts, homeless locals and people with mental illnesses.
Ariana Ciancio, a licensed mental health counselor and master certified addiction professional, has connected with more than 130 people since she joined the police department. She’s placed 27 people in treatment and connected another 67 with local resources, police say.
“Some of these individuals (placed in treatment) we’ve seen before,” Goldman said. “If we’re getting them healthy … we’re not responding to the same calls over and over again.”
The idea was to reach the recovery community in ways police couldn’t. Now, when an officer responds to an overdose, Ciancio is notified and reaches out to victims.
“When they’re ready to change, they come to me,” Ciancio said. “I’ve had people placed with service providers who call me and say, ‘Thank you. You’ve saved my life.’ ”
Delray’s overdose numbers almost always increased — until July.
“We have other departments trying to mirror what we’re doing,” Goldman said of Ciancio’s outreach efforts.
It was something the city needed, Goldman said, particularly when sober homes and treatment centers started closing shop and deserting patients.
Recent state and city legislation has allowed more oversight of what were seemingly unregulated sober homes and treatment facilities, and forced several out of town, Mayor Cary Glickstein said.
“A lot of the bad operators thrived in places like Delray because for years nobody was paying attention,” Glickstein said. “Now they just don’t want the scrutiny. And fewer sober homes means fewer addicts. Fewer addicts means fewer overdoses.”
Sober home crackdown
Delray is the first city in Florida to sue major opioid manufacturers and distributors for in part fueling the opioid addiction crisis.
Meanwhile, the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has made at least 41 arrests on charges of patient brokering and insurance fraud since late 2016. Delray Beach Det. Nicole Lucas sat on the task force for more than a year, bringing some focus to Delray Beach, Goldman said.
“We got a lot of oversight,” he said. “Now, a lot of other departments are jumping on board.”
Longtime operators who have played by the rules are optimistic, as they watched “shady operators” forced out of business by arrest or for refusing to seek state licensing, required as of the summer, said Jim Tichy, who co-owns The Lodge recovery residences in Delray Beach with his wife, Adrienne.
“There’s a lot less bad housing,” Tichy said. “What’s left standing is the strong, reputable recovery residences.”
The live-saving overdose antidote Narcan also was a factor in the decrease.
Delray Beach Police and Fire Rescue are equipped with it, but pharmacies began selling Narcan over-the-counter in the fall.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Tichy said. “You make it available, and you risk people using it on their own, which they are.”
Police suspect people are using heroin, overdosing, then using Narcan to revive themselves without reporting the drug use.
“It’s dangerous. … Anybody that’s given Narcan should be transported to the hospital,” Goldman said. “We want them to call us. We don’t care if the number (of reported overdoses) goes up. We just want the community to be safe.”
With more scrutiny and regulation expected, Glickstein suspects Delray Beach will see fewer overdoses this year.
“In the recovery industry, Delray is no longer viewed as hospitable,” he said.