Opiates are often considered helpful drugs. They increase signals of pleasure within the brain, making pain more tolerable. For people dealing with discomfort after surgery, opiates make recovery easier to bear. For people living with cancer, the medications can make daily life possible.
We once trusted opiates so much that we used them in almost everything. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime points out, even heroin was once considered a “wonder drug” for its ability to ease pain, suppress coughs, and smooth recovery after surgery.
A lot has changed since then. Now, opiates have been associated with addictions, overdoses, and deaths. The conversation about the dangers of opiates is being held all across the country, but it is most acute in Florida. Many people are dying due to opiates here. While lawmakers are looking for solutions, people continue to lose their lives.
Before we dive into a discussion of opiates in Florida and why they are dangerous, it pays to understand what the substances are and what they are designed to do. The more we understand the drugs, the more we can do to combat the addictions.
Opiates are natural drugs pulled from the sap of poppy plants. Any natural drug, including heroin, that can be created from poppy plants is an opiate. Opioids are manmade substances that work just like opiates, but they’re synthesized in labs.
Both opioids and opiates interact with opiate receptors, which are located in the brain and the body. When opiates are attached to their receptors, they trigger the release of a brain chemical known as dopamine.
Dopamine is the chemical the brain naturally releases in response to something pleasurable. It’s made to help the brain remember rewarding sensations. A flood of dopamine is often interpreted as euphoria or intense happiness.
Opioids are effective painkillers due to their euphoric effect. They tend to trick the brain into believing that the pain is somehow not important when compared to the pleasure people feel. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that opioids are generally safe when they’re taken under doctor’s orders for a short period of time. But the euphoria they produce can be dangerous.
In time, people come to rely on that sense of euphoria. Their brain cells call out for drugs, and the urge to use is hard to ignore. People may be driven to take in more opioids in order to feel that euphoria. In time, people may move from prescription painkillers like Vicodin to hard drugs like heroin to get high.
While opiates and opioids are related, street drugs tend to be stronger than prescription drugs. They also tend to be easier to get and cheaper to buy. That means people who may start an addiction with the abuse of painkillers may transition to street drugs in time, and that move could have deadly consequences.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors the number of people who become sick or die due to drug abuse. Between 2014 and late 2016, CDC drug overdose death statistics from Florida were alarming. Every year, the number of overdose rates seemed to climb. When researchers plotted the numbers on a chart, there was a straight line moving from left to right with no end in sight.
Since 2017, the numbers have been changing. The changes are due, in part, to shifts in prescription drug abuse.
In the 2016-2017 Prescription Drug Monitoring Annual Report, created by the Florida Department of Health, researchers report that rates of deaths caused by oxycodone and alprazolam declined 70.6 percent between 2010 and 2014. This seems to suggest that people in Florida have been moving away from the abuse of prescription drugs, and it should mean that fewer people are losing their lives due to the abuse of drugs.
Unfortunately, Florida isn’t making the kind of progress in the fight against addiction that’s seen in other states. For example, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that drug overdose deaths declined in 14 states in the 12 months prior to July 2017. Florida wasn’t one of these states. During this time period, the state’s death rate rose by more than 30 percent.
Researchers attribute this rise to the presence of a very powerful prescription drug known as fentanyl. This substance can be used as a standalone drug, and it can also be added to street drugs like heroin by dealers. People who take this substance may have no idea of the power of the substance they’re about to take in, and it could lead to an overdose death.
Florida is a large state, and while it’s tempting to make sweeping statements that apply to the state as a whole, doing so isn’t quite accurate. In fact, when it comes to drug abuse issues, each county looks a little different.
In general, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the abuse of prescription painkillers is higher in rural areas when compared to urban areas. People in urban areas may face issues of low economic mobility. They may struggle to get a good education. They may have few entertainment options. All of this could lead to a sense of despair, and that could lead to drug abuse.
Researchers have also examined Florida’s drug overdose rate by county. Comparing county to county can help to highlight pockets of the state where substance abuse issues are most pressing.
In 2016, Manatee, Duval, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties showed the highest rates of overdose deaths related to cocaine. In 2015, Manatee County had the highest number of deaths per capita related to cocaine, fentanyl, and morphine. It tied with Palm Beach County that same year for deaths related to heroin.
While some counties may experience a smaller number of losses due to drugs, the entire state is struggling with the epidemic, and the impact is staggering.
According to the Sun-Sentinel, morgues in Florida are at capacity. In some counties, there are 10 deaths per day, and that means there just isn’t enough space to hold all of the bodies. Some families in Florida must travel long distances to identify a body at the morgue since the one close to them is full.
In addition, the state’s ability to help families understand the cause of death is under strain. In another Sun-Sentinel piece, reporters discuss wait times of weeks or even months to get toxicology reports back after an unexplained death. There are just not enough laboratory technicians to process all of the samples coming in due to drug abuse. Delays leave families waiting for answers, which can extend their pain.
An epidemic like this can also leave huge gaps within the community. Each death leaves a job unfilled, a family hurting, and friends mourning. When an epidemic of deaths takes hold, it can feel as though the entire community is falling apart. The sense of loss and tragedy can be hard to live with.
Some counties are taking direct action against prescription drug abuse. In Pinellas County, for example, authorities enacted an ordinance that effectively stops any new pain clinics from opening. The officials hope that this move will make it harder for people to get the prescription drugs they hope to abuse. That could, they believe, keep people from losing their lives to addiction.
At the state level, officials are trying something similar. According to the publication Governing, legislation passed in Florida in 2018 puts a three-day limit on painkiller prescriptions. That means people with a prescription must head to the pharmacy every three days for the drugs they need, and that could make stockpiling the drugs harder for these people.
Unfortunately, opiates and opioids are closely related. If people cannot get the painkillers they need to maintain an abuse issue, they can transition to a hard drug like heroin instead. Legislation like this may ease one kind of abuse, but it won’t cure the problem altogether.
It’s difficult for legislators to write laws that can help to combat heroin addiction. After all, heroin is already illegal throughout all of Florida. Changing the laws won’t encourage people to stop abusing the drugs since they’re already willing to break the law right now.
Instead, Florida law enforcement agencies are working with the federal government to break up heroin import rings.
The majority of America’s heroin originates in Mexico, according to a report published by NPR. Drug dealers set up fields that blossom with poppy plants, and each field is harvested by teams of workers who then process the poppy sap into drugs. The southwestern Guerrero state of Mexico is the epicenter of his harvest, NPR says.
Heroin grown in Mexico moves through a sophisticated pipeline of drug traffickers who take in shipments, break down those shipments into doses, and then sell those drugs on the street. In an article published by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, Florida law enforcement agents highlight how these rings are broken apart. Instead of simply focusing on people who use the drug or people who sell small amounts of the drug, Florida is working with the FBI to determine who the major drug importers are. When that happens, they can close down the heroin rings and make the drug a lot harder to find.
This is very difficult work, and it often involves years of monitoring, research, and planning. But with one arrest, agents can stop a flood of drugs coming into the state, and that could mean potential healing for many.
Unfortunately, drug dealers that cannot get the substance they choose to sell may get creative about their inventory. Some dealers cut their heroin with inert substances like baby powder or salt just to make their small supplies stretch a little further. Some dealers in Florida have been cutting their heroin with fentanyl, which makes each hit a little more powerful and a little more deadly.
A Tampa drug dealer was arrested and charged for lacing heroin with fentanyl in June 2018, and according to coverage from the Bradenton Herald, that dealer was charged with life imprisonment. The sentence was so severe, analysts say, because the drug dose the man sold resulted in the death of a customer.
As long as law enforcement continues to crack down on the illegal drug trade in Florida, using illegal drugs within the state could result in extended jail time. Those who lace their drugs may also face intense physical danger.
Florida is home to countless treatment programs for addiction.
Each person who gets help is making the addiction issue better in Florida. It’s one less person who will lose their life. It’s one less person buying drugs. Treatment works. It’s time to try it.
History of Heroin. (January 1953). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime from http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1953-01-01_2_page004.html
Opioids. National Institute on Drug Abuse from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids#summary-of-the-issue
Vital Statistics Rapid Release: Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts. (July 2018). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm
2016-2017 Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Annual Report. (December 2017). Florida Department of Health from http://www.floridahealth.gov/statistics-and-data/e-forcse/funding/2017pdmpannualreport.pdf
Overdose Deaths Fall in 14 States. (February 2018). Pew Charitable Trusts from http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/02/22/overdose-deaths-fall-in-14-states
Opioid Misuse in Rural America. U.S. Department of Agriculture from https://www.usda.gov/topics/opioids
Florida. County Health Rankings and Roadmaps from http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/florida/2018/measure/factors/138/data?sort=desc-3
1 Day, 10 Overdose Deaths: Drug Epidemic Strains Morgues. (March 2017). Sun Sentinel from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-pn-heroin-emergency-20170322-story.html
Overdose Victims' Families Wait Months for Answers Amid Backlog at Medical Examiner's Office. (March 2017). Sun Sentinel from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-pn-samantha-miller-20170314-story.html
Fighting Back Against Prescription Drug Abuse. Pinellas County, Florida from http://www.pinellascounty.org/justice/fightingback.htm
Opioid Prescriptions Now Have 3-Day Limit in Florida. (March 2018). Governing from http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/tns-opioids-pills-florida-scott.html
On the Hunt for Poppies in Mexico: America's Biggest Heroin Supplier. (January 2018). National Public Radio from https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/01/14/571184153/on-the-hunt-for-poppies-in-mexico-americas-biggest-heroin-supplier
Landmark Charges Come Down for Florida Drug Dealer in Fentanyl Death. (June 2018). Bradenton Herald from https://www.bradenton.com/news/local/crime/article212966699.html