One after another, politicians, policy makers, police and scientists stepped up to a podium during a news conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday and tried to find words to reflect the dire state of Florida’s opioid crisis.
“This is truly, after 33 years of tracking drug trends in the state of Florida, the most rapidly rising and critical crisis in our lifetime and in the history of Florida,” said James Hall, a drug-abuse researcher at Nova Southeastern University.
In 2015, seven people died every day of an opioid overdose across the state. The numbers are not yet available for 2016, but Hall expects as many as 12 people died every day from an opioid overdose in Florida.
The press conference was held in anticipation of bills being filed to address the opioid crisis and a committee hearing before the legislative session begins in March.
Speakers used charts, personal stories and data from a Palm Beach Post’s investigation of the heroin opioid epidemic at the news conference sponsored by the Florida Behavioral Health Association and the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who oversaw the crackdown on Florida pill mills seven years ago, said that in her office she keeps framed photographs of teenagers who have overdosed and died. She said she is in “constant contact” with attorneys general in other states about their efforts to combat the crisis.
Bondi said she was especially concerned about fentanyl, a pain killer more than 100 times stronger than morphine. To mask the drug, dealers now use pill presses to make fentanyl look like Xanax pills, Bondi said.
“I called Amazon and eBay and you can buy them online,” Bondi said about the pill presses. She urged students who buy the stimulant Adderall on the street to help them study, instead to go to a doctor and get a prescription.
“You have no idea, if you buy anything on the street, what’s in it,” Bondi said. “Please do not buy anything on the street.”
Mark Fontaine, the executive director of the FBHA and FADAA, cited data from a Palm Beach Post story that revealed hospital costs for the opioid epidemic topped more than $1.1 billion in the first nine months of 2015.
Among those who travelled to Tallahassee for the news conference: Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson, head of the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force; Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose former administrative assistant lost her daughter to an overdose; and Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell of Stuart, sponsor of a 2015 bill that created a voluntary licensing program for sober homes.
A hurdle that some drug treatment experts say had dogged their efforts in Tallahassee is the belief among North Florida lawmakers that the opioid epidemic is a South Florida problem.
Data analyzed by The Post and displayed during the news conference showed that the epidemic is a statewide problem. Manatee County - the Sarasota and Bradenton area - saw a 174 percent increase in opioid deaths between 2012 and 2015. Duval County, home to Jacksonville, saw a 3,480 percent increase in opioid deaths during the same time.
Democratic Rep. Lori Berman, Boynton Beach, said the epidemic is statewide. She intends to co-sponsor HB 61, filed by Rep. Larry Lee Jr. of Port St. Lucie, which requires hospitals to provide certain services to overdose patients.
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