Okaloosa County, Florida, has seen a spike in local heroin use in 2016, according to Councilwoman Diane Keller of Fort Walton Beach.
Law enforcement made roughly 48 heroin-related arrests in Okaloosa County this year, compared to one arrest five years prior. Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office reports that known cases of heroin use skyrocketed from 11 cases in 2011 to 199 cases in 2015.
Captain Michael Card, criminal investigations division commander of the sheriff’s office, sees the increase in heroin use as proof of success in the fight against pharmaceutical opioids. After an aggressive crackdown on pill mills in Florida, substance users substituted their prescription drugs of choice with heroin and fentanyl, both deadly and less expensive drugs.
“Heroin addiction is a huge problem in our city. If you check the crime, the majority of it is related to substance abuse in some way,” said Keller, who joined the fight against drugs when a family member developed a substance use disorder.
A heroin epidemic plagues the entire state of Florida. The number of heroin-involved incidents in Florida increased by nearly 125 percent from 2010 to 2013. Heroin-related deaths rose by 111 percent during the same period.
In March 2016, Okaloosa Emergency Medical Services (EMS) partnered with the sheriff’s office to combat the heroin epidemic in Northwest Florida.
They are collaborating to improve the community’s access to Narcan (naloxone), an antidote for opioid overdose. Officers can administer naloxone safely to suspected overdose patients while waiting for EMS to arrive.
Training officers to use naloxone is one part of Okaloosa County’s multidisciplinary approach in the fight against heroin abuse.
“We’ve targeted and arrested heroin dealers and users. We’ve educated the public about the threat to public safety for heroin and all drugs, and we’ve taken measures to save lives,” Card said.
He added that Okaloosa County is one of the few law enforcement agencies in Florida to carry and administer naloxone to suspected overdose victims. This method proved effective when Okaloosa deputy Wes Haggan used naloxone to revive a young man who overdosed at a Mary Esther grocery store.
Heroin and fentanyl caused more than 600 substance-related deaths in Florida in 2015. According to a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the number of deaths caused by these drugs surged from 2014 to 2015. Experts predict that the trend will continue to rise in 2016.
“Fentanyl is another dangerous face of the illegal narcotics trade,” said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer in a statement. “It is a controlled substance that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and can be lethal, even in very small doses.”
Specialists attribute the drastic increase in deaths to drug dealers mixing heroin and fentanyl. Dr. Diane Boland, director of toxicology from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, confirmed that investigators have found evidence of heroin mixed with fentanyl at the scenes of some drug-related deaths. She expressed doubts about whether the substance users were aware of the presence of fentanyl, given their sudden deaths.
Following the increase in heroin and fentanyl use, Miami implemented its first needle exchange program, which allows residents to exchange used syringes for new ones. These programs educate users about the risks associated with sharing needles and reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis. Similar to the Okaloosa initiative, the centers also supply naloxone to prevent overdose-related deaths.