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Substance Abuse Trends in Florida

Many Floridians have serious substance abuse problems. Millions of Floridians are dependent on alcohol, methamphetamine, opioids, heroin, or cocaine. Florida is a major drug market. It’s also one of the major longstanding centers of the drug trade.

In 2011, around 8 percent of Floridians used illicit drugs, which is near the national average. That means around 1.5 million Floridians used illegal drugs that year. Since Florida has such a large population, the scale of its drug problem is also large.

Unfortunately, many of those users are highly addicted. In 2013 and 2014, around 410,000 Floridians were dependent on or had abused illicit drugs within a year of being surveyed.

Heavy usage has serious consequences. Florida’s rate of drug-induced death in 2010 was higher than the national average. In 2010, drug use caused the deaths of 3,181 Floridians. That’s more people than died due to either car accidents or guns.

Like much of the United States, Florida has been hard-hit by an opiate addiction crisis. Thousands of Floridians have become dependent on prescription painkillers and heroin in the last decade. Rates of overdose and death from opiates have increased since 2010.

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In 2013 and 2014, around 410,000 Floridians were dependant on or had abused illicit drugs within a year of being surveyed

Florida also faces stubbornly consistent rates of cocaine and methamphetamine use. Cocaine is readily available in Florida, since the state is one of the major ports of entry for the drug. Meth users make their own supply of the drug in rural areas, or buy high-grade, imported versions of the drug in cities.

Clearly, many Floridians suffer from the awful effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Here are some of the unique factors that have brought so many Floridians to the brink.

Alcohol

Like residents anywhere else, many Floridians are alcoholics. Florida is a hard drinking state. Several beach areas are well-known nationally as party destinations. Young people flock to Florida from all over the country for spring break celebrations.

Overconsumption of alcohol is a hallmark of spring break. Dozens of movies and TV shows portray college students chugging vast quantities of beer and spirits. Beer and liquor companies sponsor parties in major spring break destinations. Underage drinking is extremely common in these gatherings. Older college students will buy alcohol for their teenage friends. Some kids die from overconsumption.

Some of Florida’s college students live the spring break lifestyle year round. Several of Florida’s biggest colleges — Florida State, the University of Florida, and the University of Miami — are known nationally as party schools. Each has a reputation for a hard-drinking culture centered around tailgating and Greek life.

58%of Floridians are drinkers. In major party centers like Monroe, Pinellas, and Sarasota Counties, nearly 70 percent of residents consume alcohol.

Florida’s hard-drinking reputation is borne out by statistics. Around 58 percent of Floridians are drinkers. In major party centers like Monroe, Pinellas, and Sarasota Counties, those numbers are even higher. Nearly 70 percent of those counties’ residents consume alcohol. Around 15 percent of those areas’ residents are heavy drinkers.

Alcohol abuse isn’t limited to alcoholics. Binge drinking is dangerous to everyone who tries it. One night of heavy drinking can have fatal consequences to drinkers who haven’t formed a habit. Overconsuming alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, a fatal condition similar to a drug overdose.

Fatalities from alcohol poisoning are more common in Florida than almost anywhere else. From 2010 to 2012, 103 Floridians died from overconsumption. Only nine states had more frequent alcohol poisoning deaths.

Even people who don’t drink are at risk from heavy drinkers. Drunk driving happens more often in Florida than in the rest of the country. From 2003 to 2012, drunk drivers killed more than 8,000 people in Florida.

Miami Beach skyline of skyscrapers

Drug Trafficking In Florida

Florida is a major center for drug trafficking, and has been since the 1980s, when the Miami area was the epicenter of the Colombian cocaine boom. The state’s giant drug trade means that lots of drug money finds its way into Florida’s economy. The DEA seized nearly $20 million in drug money in Florida in 2014. Only New York and California saw more drug money seizures that year.

In all likelihood, the $20 million figure represents just a fraction of the actual value of the drug trade in Florida. That figure represents only the liquid assets of the drug dealers who got caught.

Florida is a major port of entry for drugs from Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Chinese drug traffickers have also begun to make major inroads into Florida’s drug trade. Florida is closer culturally and geographically to Latin America than any other U.S. state. To this day, drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine are shipped to Florida by the ton from Central and South America.

Florida suffers from high rates of violent crime, in part because of the massive drug trade. Florida has the fifth highest state rate of violent crime. Around 540 violent crimes per 100,000 people are committed in Florida.

According to the DEA, there are around 25,000 criminal gang members in Florida. Street gangs are responsible for most retail operations of the drug trade. The drug trade is territorial: gangs operate by establishing a drug sales monopoly in a set area. Often, gangs will fight violent turf wars to expand their operations.

Street gangs are essentially franchisees of cartels. Gangs purchase their stock of drugs wholesale from larger, more sophisticated organized crime organizations. The gang then doses and repackages the drugs and sells them on the street with a significant markup.

Fortunately, the Miami drug wars have mostly fizzled out, in part because of consolidation. The Mexican Sinaloa cartel holds a near monopoly on drug imports. The cartel has the ability to limit street violence by leveraging its wholesale drug supply.

This seems to have had a cooling effect. While Florida’s violent crime rate is high, it is declining. Still, consolidation has made disrupting the drug trade difficult. The Sinaloa cartel is incredibly sophisticated and resilient. It has formidable resources and can import vast quantities of drugs into Florida and the rest of the United States.

The cartel is adept at exploiting the opportunities presented by the drug trends of the moment. Indeed, the current heroin crisis has its origins in the way the cartel took advantage of a statewide crackdown on prescription opioid abuse.

Pill Mills, Opioids, And The Road To Heroin

In the early 2010s, Florida was mired in the worst part of the nation’s newest drug crisis. Thousands of Floridians were addicted to prescription painkillers. These synthetic opioids were broadly available through legitimate means.

Unscrupulous medical professionals began to flood the state with vast quantities of highly addictive, artificial opioids. These opioids are marketed under brand names like Vicodin and OxyContin and are just as dangerous as heroin or morphine.

Doctors opened unethical clinics called pill mills that were really drug dealing operations. “Patients” could pay cash for massive prescriptions of opioids. Those people could take the drugs themselves or resell them on the street for a tidy profit.

The clinics themselves did very well. Doctors hired violent criminals to keep the junkies in line and intimidate anyone who thought about stealing some of the clinics’ vast quantities of cash.

All this activity ensnared thousands of unlikely addicts in a cycle of addiction. To be sure, many recreational users started to abuse opioids. But so did patients suffering from injuries or chronic pain and recovering from surgery. Many doctors prescribed legitimate patients far more opioids than they needed. Some patients used their whole supply and developed dependencies.

The opioid crisis became acute in 2010, when Seven Floridians died every day from opioid poisioning.

The crisis became acute in 2010, when seven Floridians died every day from opioid poisoning. The state responded by restricting the amount of opioids patients could access, creating a database that tracked prescriptions, and focusing law enforcement on the issue. The state’s efforts have made an impact. Pill mills have been curtailed and closed. Doctors are now more reluctant to prescribe opioids. When they do so, they write prescriptions for smaller quantities.

Tragically, these efforts were too late for many Floridians. They were trapped in dependency and the cycle of addiction. Many still abuse opioids and need help with their recovery. Worst of all, opioids still kill five Floridians every day.

Still others have fallen victim to another dangerous addiction. When they couldn’t get their hands on opioids anymore, many addicts switched over to heroin.

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Heroin Fills The Void

Heroin is, rightfully, a drug with a sinister reputation. Use of the opiate has increased drastically in recent years all over the United States.

With the collapse of the pill mills, Florida was ripe to develop a heroin crisis. Heroin is similar chemically to opioids. Indeed, some opioids, such as fentanyl, were created to mimic heroin. So heroin was a natural next step for opioid addicts who had lost their supply of prescription pills. They could switch to heroin and avoid or mitigate withdrawal.

Heroin has a number of other characteristics that appeal to former opioid addicts. It’s easy to come by, for one. There are no meddling doctors or well-meaning pharmacists to get between consumer and product. People can get as much heroin as they want as often as they want it. Databases and prescription caps don’t apply to drug dealers on the street.

Most of all, heroin is cheap. Much cheaper, in fact, than opioids. A bag of heroin can cost as little as $10. That’s the same price as just one OxyContin pill. For those with large habits and a chemical dependency on a drug, prescription prices add up high and fast.

Organized crime was quick to pick up on this shift in the drug market. The cartel stepped up its shipments of heroin to Florida. To get heroin into the streets, cartels required methamphetamine dealers to buy both drugs. Some street dealers in the southern United States are not allowed to sell cartel meth if they don’t also sling heroin.

Now, heroin use is spreading rapidly throughout Florida. Statewide heroin deaths went up 900 percent from 2011 to 2014. South Florida has been particularly hard hit. The Miami area’s three counties, already one of the state’s leaders in heroin abuse, saw heroin deaths go up by an average of 245 percent over the same time frame.

Death isn’t the only grim fate that can befall heroin addicts. Most heroin users inject the drug, which puts them at high risk of contracting bloodborne diseases. Many heroin users contract HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C as a result of their drug abuse.

It’s likely that the heroin crisis is one of the main reasons that Florida has led the United States in new HIV cases since 2012. Two South Florida counties, Broward and Miami-Dade, were the primary culprits. Not so coincidentally, the spike in HIV cases began at the same time that Florida embarked on its opioid crackdown.

Heroin and other opioids represent just the latest challenge for overtaxed public health workers, who already are trying to treat Floridians caught in the midst of ongoing methamphetamine and cocaine crises.

Methamphetamine: The Unending Crisis

Before heroin and opioids were public drug enemy number one, methamphetamine was perhaps the most reviled drug in the United States. The meth crisis has not ended or abated. In fact, meth lab seizures in Florida have gone up over the past decade.

The meth trade has undergone major changes in recent years. The popular image of meth production involves large-scale meth labs in exurbs and farmland. That perception is increasingly outdated. More and more, meth users are making their own drugs, or buying them from international criminal groups.

Most of the meth consumed in the United States is now imported, primarily from Mexico. The U.S. government has restricted the availability of meth’s precursor chemicals, making large-scale domestic production of the drug difficult.

However, imported meth is more expensive than meth made at home. Importation adds to the cost of drugs. To avoid the markup, many meth users have begun to produce small amounts of drugs for themselves and their fellow users.

The most common of these methods is the “one pot” or “shake ‘n bake” method. Shake ‘n bake involves shaking small amounts of precursor chemicals in a bottle, usually while driving a car.

Shake ‘n bake producers drive around in order to disperse the fumes that are a byproduct the process. Making meth in the car also makes labs harder for law enforcement to detect.

Unfortunately, when mobile meth producers discard the bottle they cook in, they also throw out the process’s dangerous chemical residues. Those chemical traces can pollute the area they litter or cause serious health problems in the people who pick them up—or worse.

Meth labs are notorious for causing destruction. The drug’s chemical precursors are extremely volatile. If mixed improperly or overheated they can catch fire or explode. Labs, even small ones, can explode well after they are abandoned and injure folks who have nothing to do with the business.

Miami Beach police officer car parked on the street

Cocaine

For a long time, Florida has been a major center of the cocaine trade in the United States. The state is closer to South America’s cocaine producing regions than anywhere else. Florida’s long coastline and many ports of entry make it an appealing target for cocaine traffickers.

Florida’s cocaine trade took off in the 1980s, when Colombian cartels started to ship vast quantities of cocaine through Miami with the help (or violent resistance) of local Cuban-American and Caribbean immigrant intermediaries. Miami became the most violent city in the country. So much drug money entered the economy that it literally could not be counted.

Changes in the drug business and stepped-up law enforcement slowed the Miami drug trade. Law enforcement cracked down on Florida’s drug business in the late 1980s. Colombian cartels were never very methodical about their importation tactics or their use of violence.

Mexican organizations began to take their place by way of superior organization and their ruthless, ex-military professional enforcers. The U.S.-Mexico border is now the main channel for cocaine importation, though Florida is still a major conduit. Around 15 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States comes through Florida.

Cocaine use has mostly been supplanted by methamphetamine. Meth is much cheaper than cocaine, and users can produce it themselves. Even low-grade cocaine has major built-in transportation costs. Only about 5 percent of Floridians who entered rehab in 2015 did so because of cocaine dependency.

Public Health And Government Response

Florida’s substance abuse problems are prolific, and have begun to worsen in recent years. Indeed, many employers across the state report that they have trouble hiring drug free workers.

In particular, the opioid crisis has drawn the attention of public health workers and law enforcement.

Opioid and heroin overdoses are now so common that Florida’s first responders have begun to carry naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. Police and firefighters in some hard-hit areas report responding to overdose incidents on a daily basis. The drug is also now available over the counter at many Florida drug stores.

In Miami, public health officials have tried to battle the spread of bloodborne diseases by opening the state’s first needle exchange. Needle exchanges allow intravenous (IV) drug users — usually heroin users — to shoot up their drugs in a safe environment, using clean needles. Intravenous drug users outside safe injection sites will often share needles with fellow users, which can spread diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Some Florida governments have begun to expand drug courts. Drug courts allow convicted heavy drug users to avoid the traditional criminal justice system provided they meet regular treatment goals and benchmarks. Judges, caseworkers, and parole officers work collaboratively with convicts to ensure that they recover fully from their addictions and gain access to employment and housing.

Still, Florida’s drug crisis is growing, and has already degraded the lives of drug users and people around them. People trapped in drug addiction need help.

Support group sitting in a circle

For all drug users and alcoholics, the best way to break the cycle of addiction is through residential rehab. Inpatient rehab separates people with substance use disorders from the habits and friends that led them to drug use.

In their place, residential rehab gives addicts a new community of fellow travelers, who encourage their peers to do the hard work of breaking addiction. Trained counselors shepherd recovering users through difficult times and keep negative influences outside the facility.

With the help and encouragement of their peers and counselors, even those with the most severe substance use disorders can start their way down the path of recovery in residential rehab.

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