Heroin scourge: ‘Not a thing being done about it’

When people started dying in every neighborhood in Huntington, W.Va., the mayor rallied his city to come together and fight the crisis, gaining national attention.

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When a young man died on his parents’ lawn, just around the corner from the Staten Island, N.Y., district attorney’s house, the county’s top law enforcement official vowed to go after the dealers killing people in his district.

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In Palm Beach County, addicts have been dying nearly everywhere — outside city halls, in parking lots, even in the upscale Ibis neighborhood near the home of the Palm Beach County sheriff.

But aside from a core of dedicated treatment providers and volunteers, addicts in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida can find little in the way of public resources to get off the drug and live regular lives.

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“The problem is everywhere and there’s not a thing being done about it,” said Amanda Michniak, a recovering addict whose sister, Josie, died the day after Christmas 2015. “The system is broken. They’re not helping people.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. In many cities and states in America, it isn’t.

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In Massachusetts in 2014, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency after the number of overdose deaths from all narcotics in his state had grown by 15 percent from the year before.

In Florida, deaths from heroin alone grew by 111 percent during the same period; in Palm Beach County, it was 155 percent. But other than hurricanes, Gov. Rick Scott’s most recent state of emergency was to combat Zika, which has killed no one in Florida.

Governors in seven states responded directly to heroin deaths and addiction by assembling emergency statewide task forces. Some, like Virginia, came up with creative solutions, such as the state providing police officers with Narcan to reverse overdoses and offering to forgive student loans for doctors who practice addiction medicine in the state.

But in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott abolished the governor’s Office of Drug Control in 2011, replacing it with a nine-member advisory council. Its mission, to “eliminate substance abuse in Florida,” is so vague as to be unattainable.

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In its 2015 report, it noted a 705 percent increase in heroin overdoses over five years. Yet, its response to expand treatment? The council recommended: “expanding treatment availability.”

In 2016, Congress had bipartisan support for the first major federal addiction legislation in 40 years, covering prevention, treatment, recovery, law enforcement, criminal justice reform and overdose reversal. Both Florida senators voted for it.

But when the bill came to pay for it, Sen. Marco Rubio missed the vote. It failed 48 to 47. One senator said “it’s the equivalent of offering a life preserver with no air in it.”

In Indiana, after roughly 200 people contracted HIV from sharing needles, conservative governor and Vice President-elect Mike Pence lifted a ban on needle exchanges in 2015 in affected counties. Many other cities give addicts clean syringes, too, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the programs.

In Florida, where Dade and Broward counties led the nation in new HIV cases in 2014, the Legislature this year allowed the University of Miami to establish a pilot needle-exchange program. But lawmakers refused to pay for it. And everywhere else in the state, including Palm Beach County, supplying addicts with clean syringes is still a third-degree felony.

The failure to combat the epidemic lies in Palm Beach County, as well.

In Huntington, population 49,000, nearly every public official carries Narcan, the life-saving drug that reverses heroin overdoses. Police, firefighters, members of the mayor’s cabinet — even librarians carry it — and the health department gives it away to anyone willing to take a class. So when 27 people there overdosed in four hours in August, all but one were saved. 

In Palm Beach County, a few police departments and fire departments use Narcan. But Sheriff Bradshaw has refused to let his deputies carry it, even when offered the medicine for free. He cited liability issues.

Other places have found creative ways to provide treatment for addicts who don’t have insurance. Officials in Gloucester, Mass., offer immediate care for addicts who turn over their drugs to police. New Jersey lawmakers set aside money for a pilot program in five counties that finds beds for addicts recently revived with Narcan.

In Palm Beach County in 2015, the largest detox facility for indigent addicts closed. The entire county has fewer than 50 beds for indigent addicts. The largest provider of detox services today? The county jail.

In Huntington, the police department understood that it needed good numbers on the epidemic — when, where and why people were overdosing — so they dedicated a detective solely to understanding the numbers. It has helped them get the community to spend resources on treating addicts.

In Palm Beach County, there has been no such investment. The only person collecting numbers on overdose deaths is an overworked employee at the Medical Examiner’s Office. And the numbers are months old.

In Staten Island, they don’t wait on the medical examiner for data. The district attorney there launched an initiative with New York police to go after drug dealers by seizing the cellphones of dead addicts and working with their families. Prosecutors and police have been assigned to feed phone numbers into a database to trace dealers and deaths. The data has so far led to the arrests of 18 dealers linked to two overdoses this year.

In Palm Beach County, State Attorney Dave Aronberg launched a law enforcement task force this year, but it was not to hunt down dealers who kill addicts. The task force was formed to go after fraud in the sober home industry, something Aronberg had been warned about years earlier.

Palm Beach County administrators still have no “point person” assigned to the epidemic. Few city or county politicians have made this a central issue. The word “opioid” doesn’t even appear on the county Health Department’s website.

There are some signs of hope. Aronberg’s task force has busted one treatment center owner, arrested multiple people for patient brokering and promises more. One county task force just proposed a pilot program to provide detox services for people who overdose.

But the changes have come too late for the hundreds of people who have died in the county in the last three years.

Compare their responses to Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, who has made the heroin crisis a top priority:

“If we’re all saying, that this is happening in my community, to my residents, I have an obligation to do something about it.

“And if I don’t, I don’t deserve to be sitting here. You forfeit the right to lead.”

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