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Why heroin? Why now?

In early 2012, law enforcement and elected officials frantic over the proliferation of pill mills in Palm Beach and Broward counties thought they had reason to breathe easy.

Click to read the special report

Florida had months earlier initiated a crackdown on the barely regulated clinics where, for hard cash, anyone with a real or fake pain could walk out with bottles of prescription narcotics, particularly oxycodone.

Palm Beach and Broward counties were the pill mill capitals of the country.

But also in early 2012, treatment counselors in Palm Beach County were warning of the next wave of narcotics: heroin.

>>Heroin epidemic, hidden in shame, draws little action to stop the dying

>>Interactive Calendar: All the lives lost

It wasn’t much of a leap. Oxycodone and heroin are both ultimately derived from the poppy plant, the source of morphine and opium. Their molecular structure is nearly identical. So are the highs. And so is their addictive potential.

The pill mill crackdown curbed the supply of oxycodone. That drove the street price higher. Heroin, the cheaper high, filled the gap.

For treatment professionals and many families of those who died from heroin, the connection is a given.

Among those who died of heroin in Palm Beach County last year was Sean Olds, 40, who built a million-dollar remodeling business before he injured his knee at work and was prescribed painkillers. And Tate Lindsey Jr., 27, of Boca Raton, who was prescribed oxycodone for a worker’s compensation injury and transitioned to heroin. And Sean Murdick, 22, of Albany, N.Y., who loved sports and rode dirt bikes. He broke his arm and was prescribed oxycodone but when the pills got too expensive, he turned to heroin.

Still, the idea that oxycodone resulted in a heroin epidemic is not a universally shared sentiment.

>>How addicts, families can get help

 >>How to recognize an overdose and save a life

But James Hall, a nationally recognized epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center for the Study & Prevention of Substance Abuse, points to a study in which 80 percent of new heroin users told researchers they had started with oxycodone.

Said Hall, “This epidemic has its breeding ground in prescription use.”

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