Manatee, Sarasota Counties Report High Rate of Drug Deaths in 2015

Manatee County led the state of Florida in the number of per capita overdose deaths involving morphine, cocaine and fentanyl in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission annual report.

The medical examiner district comprising Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties recorded its highest number of heroin-related deaths in the 15 years of data available in the report. The district also led the state with 122 overdose deaths involving fentanyl.

The tri-county area is home to an estimated 737,000 residents. The district comprising Orange and Osceola counties, which is home to more than 1.4 million people, had the second-most fentanyl-related deaths with 105.

Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid pain reliever that is about 100 times as strong as morphine. It’s been linked to overdose outbreaks across the country, and it’s commonly mixed with heroin and sold on the street to drug users who are oblivious to what they’re consuming.

“Our still biggest concern is fentanyl and carfentanil,” Bradenton Police Lt. James Racky told the Bradenton Herald.

Carfentanil is a tranquilizer most commonly used to sedate large animals such as elephants. It’s about 10,000 times the strength of morphine.

Across the state, fentanyl-related deaths increased significantly in 2013 and skyrocketed in 2014 and 2015. Carfentanil is not covered in the annual report because it’s a relatively new drug of abuse. Several authorities have said they believe drug traffickers are experimenting with different mixtures of narcotics and selling them as heroin.

“Whatever they can get their hands on, they are cutting into the heroin supply,” Racky said.

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Manatee, a county with a population of just over 300,000, was devastated by drug overdoses in 2015. It led Florida in per capita deaths involving morphine in 2015. Sarasota, a county with a population around 380,000, was one of 24 counties in the 5.00–9.99 morphine deaths per 100,000 people range.

Morphine Deaths by County, 2015
County Overdose Deaths per 100,000
DeSoto 0.01–4.99
Sarasota 5.00–9.99
Manatee 20.00–24.99


The number of morphine deaths may be lower than the report indicates because heroin is metabolized into morphine in the body. The Bradenton Herald reported that law enforcement had not observed morphine trafficking in the area, but local medical examiners said there are ways to differentiate heroin deaths from morphine deaths.

Manatee and Palm Beach counties had the highest number of heroin-related deaths in the state last year. Sarasota was one of 27 counties in the 0.01–4.99 per 100,000 population range.

Heroin Deaths by County, 2015
County Overdose Deaths per 100,000
DeSoto 0
Sarasota 0.01–4.99
Manatee 10.00–14.99


But Sarasota was second only to Manatee County in the rate of fentanyl-related deaths. It was the only county in the 10.00–14.99 deaths per 100,000 range. Meanwhile, Manatee had by far the highest rate of fentanyl-related deaths in the state.

Fentanyl Deaths by County, 2015
County Overdose Deaths per 100,000
DeSoto 0
Sarasota 10.00–14.99
Manatee 20.00–24.99


Local law enforcement has been striving to crack down on the trafficking of the more potent drugs fentanyl and carfentanil, but drug arrests aren’t the only way to stop the epidemic.

“We are pursuing the traffickers, but you have to have the education for it and you have to the treatment for it,” Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow told the Bradenton Herald.

Cocaine Remains a Major Problem in Sarasota Area

The Sarasota medical examiner district ranked near the middle of the pack for drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines such as alprazolam and diazepam, the generic versions of Xanax and Valium.

The district was also near the state average in overdoses involving opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone.

Both types of drugs remain major problems in other parts of the state, but an older drug is still a prominent threat to public safety in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

“Cocaine has always been on the radar,” Bristow said. “Cocaine never went away. We have been seeing cocaine in this community since the mid-80s.”

Manatee County led the state in the number of cocaine-related deaths per 100,000 people, and the Sarasota medical examiner district ranked sixth behind major metro areas such as Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in total cocaine-related deaths.

Cocaine Deaths by County, 2015
County Overdose Deaths per 100,000
DeSoto 0
Sarasota 10.00–14.99
Manatee > 25.00


The 134 cocaine-related deaths in the tri-county area were the most in the 15 years of data available in the medical examiner’s report.

Local Authorities Urge Drug Users to Seek Treatment

In September, Sarasota police, EMS responders and drug rehab specialists hosted a joint press conference urging drug users to be careful about the drugs they’re using and to seek addiction treatment.

“If you’re with someone and they pass out and they overdose, don’t think we’re going to come in and arrest everyone in the room because that drug’s there,” Sarasota Police Lt. Randy Boyd said at the press conference. “We’re not.”

He said he wants drug users to help police spread the word when they overdose on a bad batch of heroin or cocaine.

“We want to get it off the street,” Boyd said. “We do not want it to go and cause another victim with the same bag of drugs.”

Officials at the press conference emphasized that treatment was a key component in saving lives.

“I’ve got news for everybody that can hear this: We are not going to arrest our way out of the issue,” Boyd said. “If you have a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, aunt and uncle, and you know that they’re doing this drug, please plea with them to not do it, to get the help that they need.”