Progress and Promise

The first signs of good news for the drug-treatment community occurred in May, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Executive Order 17-146, directing a Public Health Emergency and declaring an opioid epidemic across the state.

The declaration came months after several requests had come from legislators as well as the drug-treatment community, but it was much-welcomed.

Then in June, when the most recent legislative action officially took place in Florida’s fight against opioid abuse, the pain of rising death totals turned into real promise. Gov. Scott signed HB 477, targeting synthetic opioid drug abuse by increasing penalties for the abuse of fentanyl and its derivatives, among other components — with the signing largely saluted with pride by Florida officials.

The lingering question now is: Were all these moves enough to truly make an impact?

Back in June, Scott commented, “I’m proud to sign this important piece of legislation today to help fight this national epidemic which has taken the lives of too many Floridians. This legislation provides tools for law enforcement and first responders to save lives.”

Florida Rep. Jim Boyd, who sponsored HB 477, said, “With this legislation and the declaration of a Public Health Emergency, we are taking great strides in our fight to end opioid abuse.”

Florida Police Chiefs Association President and Coconut Creek Police Chief Butch Arenal called the legislation “a very clear message to drug traffickers that Florida is not the place for them.”

Jerry Demings, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association and Orange County sheriff, came to the same conclusion: “Florida’s sheriffs strongly feel that it’s important to hold drug traffickers and dealers responsible for the harm they have inflicted on our communities. This bill will help us protect Floridians from these fatal substances and fight this growing issue in our state.”

The Challenge of the Opioid Epidemic

Clearly, the legislation was much needed. Florida continues to struggle against opioids, which are derived from opium and, more often, synthetic drugs that have similar effects. Common examples include OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine, heroin and fentanyl. Opioids have been reported as a cause or contributing factor in approximately 3,900 deaths statewide in 2015, and figures for 2016 and 2017 are expected to be higher when final tallies are made.

In Orange County (Orlando) alone, there was a reported 100 percent increase in drug use and deaths during the first six months of 2017, compared to the same time in 2016. In sharp contrast, opioid deaths decreased by more than 20 percent from 2012–2013.

As the chief new weapon in the war, the new legislation targets dealers, who now face mandatory minimum jail sentences. Briefly, the 167-page legislation classifies fentanyl, fentanyl mixtures and other, more powerful synthetic opiates in a different way and attaches prison sentences of three to 25 years for “trafficker” offenses based on quantities in possession.

In essence, the legislation puts fentanyl and other synthetic drugs on penalty par with heroin in Florida, including first-degree murder charges for drug dealers in cases where the buyer dies from an overdose. Additionally, the legislation expands access for first responders to naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Another of the measures requires doctors to log prescriptions in the statewide painkiller database by the end of the next business day, faster than in the past.

For the record, Gov. Scott appears committed to the battle, citing personal experience. His words: “I know firsthand how heartbreaking substance abuse can be to a family because it impacted my own family growing up. The individuals struggling with drug use are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends and each tragic case leaves loved ones searching for answers and praying for help. Families across our nation are fighting the opioid epidemic and Florida is going to do everything possible to help our communities.”

The general consensus is that all these changes represent positive steps forward. But again, are they enough? Not everyone agrees.

What’s Next?

One of the most the notable voids in action involves drug treatment centers, which many say could use additional resources and attention. That suggestion even comes from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has said that “addicts are victims” and “we need more treatment.”

Strictly by the numbers, the treatment component in the battle against opioids does look vulnerable. A total of $38.5 million is in the state’s budget for addict care, as part of strained funding that already impacts Florida’s mental health system, according to multiple published reports.

Further, ethics recently were called into question within the treatment community, principally involving fraudulent “sober homes” that chase profits, not help people.

The negative attention instantly prompted responses from the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association and the Florida Behavioral Health Association. The groups staunchly support the drug treatment centers and offered support to the Legislature in identifying any possible questionable practices across the state. Said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse: “Florida has some of the most respected programs in the country and thousands of people find long-term recovery in our state through these treatment providers.”

Fontaine has been outspoken, both in defense of Florida’s treatment centers and about the need for more opioid-related legislation. Last January, his Tallahassee-based association recommended eight actions the legislature should take. One included heightened penalties for trafficking fentanyl. That was accomplished. Others now remain on a wish list, including several that are focused on treatment, such as creating a “bridge” for overdose patients to transition from hospital emergency departments to formal drug treatment.

“More,” Fontaine said, “could be done and needs to be done.”

On the national landscape, as part of a federal commission on opioids, a recent preliminary report included greater emphasis on the expansion of drug treatment facilities. That’s a good sign for Florida.

For his part, the Gov. Scott has promised to take additional steps before the new legislative session begins in January 2018. Those possibilities offer further optimism.

In The Meantime

Efforts like the creation and launch of the Heroes Against Heroin campaign continue to emerge. The campaign, presented on the website, includes information on how to help someone overcome opioid addiction, along with facts about the opioid abuse epidemic. It also offers access to treatment resources for those dealing with addiction and educates the community on how to prevent substance use before it starts.

“It’s absolutely crucial that we use every tool at our disposal to fight this epidemic – not only through treatment and law enforcement interdiction, but also through prevention,” said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who established the Orange County Heroin Task Force in August 2015. “It’s vital that young people know how deadly opioids can be, and that they should never, ever try heroin or fentanyl – not even once.”

So, it appears that (hopefully) Gov. Scott’s emergency declaration and HB 477 represent part of a greater legislative progress, not a complete act — with more on the way.

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