For the second year in a row, local heroin deaths have hit record highs.
And there has also been a dramatic rise in the abuse of other narcotics from the same family, opioids, a powerful class of painkillers that includes OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Methadone and a comparatively recent threat, Fentanyl. The epidemic is plaguing not just the Pensacola area, but the entire nation. So much so that President Donald Trump established an Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission this week to try to curb the issue.
Locally, law enforcement and health care providers are waging war on opioids, but the drugs are gaining ground.
Between 2001 and 2013, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission reported nine heroin-related deaths in the First Judicial Circuit, an area spanning from Escambia to Walton counties.
Then 2014 topped all of those years combined with 12 heroin-related deaths. In 2015, the death-toll more than doubled to 28. The totals for 2016 are still being tallied, but, anecdotally, deputies and doctors say they are seeing more heroin and opioid cases than ever before.
Picking up the habit
Ironically, it was the crack down on one narcotic that sparked the rise of another.
In 2011, seven Floridians were dying every day from prescription drug abuse, and 98 of the top 100 oxycodone dispensers lived in Florida, according to the Florida Attorney General’s Office. The state tightened monitoring, regulations and enforcement on so-called “pill mills,” making the drugs more difficult to prescribe and obtain.
Officials estimate the street price of OxyContin was around $1 per milligram, meaning a single pill could cost $60 to $80.
Because heroin is from the same family, it provides a similar type of high as prescription opioids. It’s also cheaper, roughly $35 to $40 for a single-usage dose, and easier to find. So when people couldn’t get pills, they started turning to heroin.
“An awful lot of the individuals who have become addicted were written prescriptions for opiates, and it affects you,” said Dennis Goodspeed, president of behavioral health services at Lakeview Center. “Some people, the doctors write them a prescription, and they say, ‘Oh my God, I like this!’ Whether that’s a kid who got his wisdom teeth taken out … or whether it’s a 40 year-old man or woman that had their first surgery … . It’s not necessarily just the ‘bad kids’ that started with reefer.”
Goodspeed said the Lakeview Center is handling more than 1,500 open cases involving individuals with an opioid dependence disorder. About 460 of those cases were opened in the last six months.
Goodspeed said many of the recent clients are young adults ages 24 to 30, but he noted opioids are affecting people of all ages, occupations and backgrounds.
Quinata offered a similar perspective, saying in his experience, people don’t just decide to try heroin on a whim.”
A dangerous trend law enforcement and health care officials have seen increase in the past year is heroin cut with Fentanyl.
Fentanyl is another opioid that is estimated to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine or heroin. Quinata said drug dealers put Fentanyl in their heroin supply to make it more potent, and thus more alluring — and deadly — to their clients.
Quinata said people use their normal amount of heroin, not realizing it is dozens of times stronger, and then they overdose. He said drug dealers are always tinkering with formulas to provide a more addictive product that will keep people coming back.
“They don’t know what they’re buying,” Quinata said. “It’s a competitive market, and drug dealers have the mindset, ‘If someone dies off my product, that is a very good product.'”
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who spearheaded the crackdown on pill mills, has been appointed to the president’s drug prevention commission. Bondi said one of her priorities will be supporting legislation to add Fentanyl to Florida’s drug trafficking statute.
Locally, the State Attorney’s Office and law enforcement offices have been aggressively targeting drug dealers. James Mitchell, a Pensacola man accused of being a linchpin of the local heroin trade, has been charged with murder resulting from distribution of controlled substances for allegedly providing his girlfriend with a dose of heroin that caused her to overdose in his hot tub.
Officials say others will likely face similar charges in the future.