Florida Must Address Mounting Heroin Crisis With Addiction Treatment

Heroin use has become a nationwide epidemic, and Alachua County is not immune.

Over the past month, the presence of heroin in our area has been front-page news. Authorities declared that use of heroin — increasingly laced with the synthetic painkiller fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 time more potent than morphine — is indeed an epidemic locally. The number of heroin cases in Alachua County has more than doubled from last year and paramedics report seeing a spike in the frequency of overdoses.

In neighboring Marion County, more than three dozen people were arrested last week for their connection to four heroin distribution rings. The alleged supplier of the rings was later arrested in Gainesville on a warrant out of Ocala. Those reports come after the February seizure of more than 1 1/2 pounds of heroin, that county’s largest heroin bust ever.

But the heroin epidemic is not unique to our region. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated some 435,000 Americans used heroin in 2014 (the latest statistics available), nearly triple what it was just seven years earlier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, says 2 out of every 100 Americans are addicted to heroin, and last year more than 10,000 deaths nationwide were blamed on heroin overdoses. And while Florida has a massive problem on its hands, Illinois and Ohio have been identified by the CDC as hot spots for overdose deaths.

Ironically, most experts say the rise of heroin use and its associated deaths is a result of unintended consequences, linked in part to a government crackdown on the prescription opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin. When states such as Florida started cracking down on so-called pill mills and tracking doctors’ dispensing of the prescription painkillers, those who had become addicted to the prescription painkillers turned to heroin as a similar and equally effective substitute. Plus, it is easily available and, amazingly, 80 percent cheaper on the street than the pain pills.

So what to do? Babies are being born addicted. Burglaries and other thefts are rising as addicts seek to feed their habits. The American Society of Addiction Medicine says drug overdoses are now the nation’s leading cause of accidental death. And everything points to the problem only getting worse, partly because the heroin crisis has caught policymakers and communities by surprise.

Certainly the nation and Alachua County must have more treatment programs. It is an absolute imperative. Congress has authorized $181 million — far less than President Obama requested — and it is caught in the bureaucratic pipeline. But it is a start.

There also needs to be stepped-up public awareness and more access to overdose antidotes. Meanwhile, law enforcement like we have seen this month in our own area must continue to be aggressive.

Finally, while policymakers and police address the crisis, each of us should be vigilant in looking for signs of opioid abuse among friends and family. Because heroin use is more than an epidemic, it is increasingly a killer in our midst.

— A version of this editorial originally appeared in the Ocala Star-Banner, one of The Sun's sister publications.

Source : http://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20161007/editorial-growing-heroin-epidemic

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