Heroin-related deaths skyrocket as Palm Beach County leads state

Correction: Because of a data reporter’s error, two comparisons were incorrect in a story Saturday on the skyrocketing number of heroin deaths in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida. County deaths from heroin-related overdoses in a two-year period, not a six-year period, were as great as in 2015. And the average monthly toll of deaths across the entire state was 63, slightly more than reported in March 2016, when 57 people died in Palm Beach County. A chart showing the number of deaths from 2009 to 2014 should have said 427 people died in Palm Beach County. The story ran on the front page.

Fentanyl is now killing more Floridians than any other single drug, with Palm Beach County leading the state in deaths caused by the powerful opioid, according to a report released Friday as state lawmakers struggled to pass a bill to clamp down on fentanyl abuse.

Palm Beach County also led the state in deaths caused by heroin, according to the Florida Medical Examiner Commission’s annual interim report on drugs found in deceased people — a report released just two days after Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency to fight the opioid epidemic.

The report covers the first six months of 2016, making it the most recent authoritative, statewide figures describing the deadly toll from opiates.

Across the state, fentanyl caused 704 deaths from January through June of this past year — more than double the number of people whose deaths were caused by the opioid during the first six months of 2015.

Palm Beach County had 156 deaths caused by fentanyl in the first half of this past year, accounting for about one-fifth of the fentanyl deaths across Florida. The county’s young people were hit hard: 90 of those deaths were between the ages of 18 and 34.

Fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine, can be prescribed for severe pain, but illicit supplies of the drug have become more prevalent as it supplants and sometimes replaces heroin on the streets.

While the street drugs are often used by people in their 20s and 30s, the toll is increasing among the youngest. One 16-year-old girl’s death in Polk County this past year was caused by fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, chemical cousins of fentanyl that can be even more potent.

Heroin was a cause of death for 96 people in Palm Beach County during the first six months of 2016, accounting for about one-quarter of the state’s 406 heroin deaths. When heroin deaths are combined with deaths from morphine, the number rises to 667. Heroin converts to morphine in the body and medical examiners consider morphine found during an autopsy to be a sign of heroin abuse.

Fentanyl and related drugs, such as carfentanil, caused 754 deaths, a Post analysis of the medical examiner records shows. Fentanyl’s chemical cousins are almost never found in autopsies without fentanyl, and fentanyl rarely causes death without the presence of other drugs, such as heroin.

The numbers of deaths are growing exponentially.

In the first six months of 2016, a mix of street drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, killed 225 people in Palm Beach County, the report found. That’s close to the number of deaths from those drugs for a two-year period ending in 2014 and nearly equaled the total for all of 2015.

In just a single month, March 2016, 57 people in Palm Beach County died from heroin, fentanyl, morphine or fentanyl-related drugs, The Post analysis showed. That’s close to the average monthly toll across all of Florida in 2013.

Many of those dying from these drugs are white, young and middle-class, The Post found in a special report, Heroin: Killer of a generation, published in November 2016.

The county also led the state during that period with 106 deaths caused by cocaine, which killed 463 across Florida.

Because lab results detailing all the drugs in a person’s system can take months to gather, autopsy results typically lag considerably. Results from all of 2016 likely won’t be available for months. But indications are the toll will continue to rise.

Besides growing in scale, Palm Beach County’s heroin-related problems are increasingly shifting to deadlier drugs than heroin itself.

A bill to make it illegal to traffic in fentanyl passed the Legislature Friday after an 11th-hour dispute over sentencing guidelines nearly sunk it.

The bill, backed by Attorney General Pam Bondi, would criminalize possession of more than 4 grams of fentanyl or carfentanil. The Senate balked over a House provision that fentanyl traffickers face a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison but relented in a 20-18 vote on Friday.

The sentence for possession of 14 grams of fentanyl would be 15 years. And those with 28 grams would get 25 years.

The Senate on Wednesday wanted to add an amendment giving judges the discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when the circumstances allowed it. That change was rejected Thursday by the House, putting the bill in jeopardy until the Senate relented. It is now headed to the governor’s desk.

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