Florida's mayor says closing pill mills sparked the state's heroin epidemic

Florida's mayor says closing pill mills sparked the state's heroin epidemic

One of Florida’s mayor of Orange County told a Senate subcommittee that she believes the state’s successful campaign to close over a thousand “pill mills” a few years ago helped create the current wave of heroin addiction plaguing Florida. Mayor Teresa Jacobs said she believes that the loss of easy access to prescription opioids from Florida’s notorious pill mills left a drug vacuum, and that the heroin cartels have been only too eager fill this vacuum. “I don’t have empirical evidence,” she told subcommittee chairman and former GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R,FL), “but what I do have is the evidence of the increase in the flow of heroin and increases in deaths related to heroin in correlation to our cutting off the pill mills.” The subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations is investigating the role of foreign cartels in the U.S. heroin epidemic. This hearing was titled “Cartels and the U.S. Heroin Epidemic: Combating Drug Violence and Public Health Crisis.” The nine subcommittee members include Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D,CA) and Ed Markey (D,MA).

State flooded with very cheap drugs

“Let me also say that while we [Florida] were dispensing more oxycodone than the rest of the country combined, most of that was leaving the state,” Mayor Jacobs said. “You could drive up and look in the full parking lot [of a pill mill] and only a small percentage of the license plates were local.” “Florida’s fight against the current wave of opioid addiction began about five years ago, in the midst of our battle against the pill mills,” Mayor Jacobs told the committee. “The heroin-pushing cartels may have misjudged the local Florida appetite for heroin, she said, “but they have, no question, flooded us with very, very cheap drugs.” Orange County is home to the City of Orlando and 12 other municipalities, Mayor Jacobs said, with a population of 2.5 million people in the greater region. The county has a strong economy and an exceptional quality of life, and in 2015 “shattered national tourism records, hosting more than 66 million visitors,” she said. “No doubt you know us as the vacation capitol of the world, but tragically, like too many other states and communities, Orange County has seen an alarming increase in the number of heroin overdoses and related deaths,” she said. “Last year, we lost 85 lives to heroin – a staggering 600% increase since 2011. Already this year we’ve had more than 90 heroin overdoses in the county, with about one-in-ten resulting in death.” The mayor said that like communities everywhere, Florida has worked to outlaw illicit sources of drugs and to provide more resources for dealing with opioid addiction. She said it’s very likely that cartels noticed what they saw as a “ripe marketplace” and today “predatory drug dealers are targeting us with heroin, as well as cheap and deadly strains of fentanyl.” “Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to accurately assess the threat in Florida, since no statewide databases exist. Instead, numbers are captured by individual agencies and municipalities – there is simply no mechanism for synergy or sharing,” she added.

Serious lack of treatment facilities

Mayor Jacobs lamented the serious lack of treatment facilities in Orange County and the rest of the state. “We know that in 2015, we housed 100 expectant mothers tragically addicted to opiates or heroin, as our jail has become the treatment center of last resort for so many people.” Sen. Rubio pointed out three of main concerns: First, the “extraordinary stigma” associated with addiction, the prevalent idea that addicts should be punished instead of helped. Second, even if that stigma could be overcome, the fact remains that in many communities, there is nowhere to take people needing treatment. “The only place you can take them is to a jail,” he said, “where you hope that their withdrawal will be managed – but it may not be. In essence, there’s nowhere else to go.” There are few options, especially for the uninsured, he said. And third, after 15 days in jail and completing a withdrawal, addicts can “fall off the wagon” and use again, and use the same amount as before withdrawal “and it kills them, because they have lost their tolerance for the opioid.” Mayor Jacobs said in her area there are 26 beds for a regional population of 2.5 million people. There are 4 jails in the region, and 200 addicts are detoxing in just one of those jails at any one time.

The county is fighting back

“For the good of our citizens and our community, we are fighting back,” she said. Among the successful actions is a recent change in the law that allows naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, to be obtained from drug stores without a prescription. Most other states are offering the same convenience, and CVS and Walgreens are participating in 35 states. “We’ve got our hands full at the local level, and are simply not equipped to fight the cartels. We know there is no single solution, but there are some universally effective approaches:

  • Enforcement is critical. In a world of increasingly sophisticated technology, our local efforts – no matter how highly leveraged and coordinated – are simply no match against organized traffickers.
  • Equally important, and in keeping with what we learned with pill mills, we must be tireless in educating people that addiction is an illness that requires treatment and support, not only for the addict, but also for the families who are ravaged by addiction.”

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