Heroin, opioid ‘epidemic’ in South Florida ignites major response from police, EMS, feds

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By: Dale King

Contributing Writer

BOCA RATON, FL – The days when heroin overdoses and deaths were linked mainly to “dirty needles in alleys” are gone. Today, that narcotic and its newly synthesized, often less expensive but more potent companion drugs are not just killing junkies, but also mature adults, educated people, college-bound youths and folks with good jobs, families and bright futures.

“The increase in heroin and opioid use is unacceptable. There are far too many deaths,” U.S. Attorney for the South Florida District Wilfredo Ferrer told an audience of several hundred police, first responders, federal investigators, medical personnel and citizens Thursday at a “Heroin and Opioid Awareness Town Hall” meeting at Lynn University in Boca Raton. Ferrer’s office sponsored the session.

Speakers included area law enforcement officials, including Delray Beach Police Chief Jeff Goldman and Boca Raton Police Chief Dan Alexander, as well as those involved in the investigation of drug crimes that have risen to epidemic proportions. The panel fielded questions posed by State Attorney David Aronberg and also from attendees.

A second panel moderated by Deputy Statewide Prosecutor Julie Chaikin Hogan discussed various treatment and prevention methods for drug overdose cases.  The drug Naloxone (also called Narcan) can often save heroin and opioid victims from dying, and is often carried in police cars and on emergency medical vehicles. Narcan can be injected every two to three minutes, in increasing dosages, as an emergency remedy for a heroin overdose.

Another speaker at the meeting, Margaret Hernandez, gave a first-person account of finding her 23-year-old son dead in his room of a heroin overdose, at a clean and sober time in his life when he had found a job, took out a life insurance policy and promised his mother, “I’m going to make you happy.”

Officials on hand for the meeting, held during “National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week,” offered sobering, at times shocking reports of what is happening in the field. Ferrer said that “on any given day, 580 people will try heroin for the first time.”  In all, 3.8 million people age 12 and older are “misusing pain killers.”

In 2015, he said, drug overdoses killed 1,400 South Florida residents while another 4,900 came close to death by ingesting too much of the narcotic. “That’s an overdose every two hours, or 12 victims a day,” said Ferrer. “That’s why we are here.”

Aronberg, known as the “Pill Mill Czar” for his crusade to stop the rampant over-prescription of pain killing drugs in Florida, turned his attention to heroin and its related evils once the state began to get a handle on pain killer abuse.

Joining heroin on the streets are prescription pain medication such as oxycodone and Oxycodone as well as fentanyl, a potent and lethal narcotic that can be purchased on the internet. “You can get anything online,” said John McKenna, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Pushers mix heroin with fentanyl to stretch their supply “and increase their profit. People think they are taking pure heroin, but it is spiked with fentanyl. It’s all related to money.”

“How do you warn people that they are taking a drug that can kill them?” asked Dr. Diane Boland from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

Fentanyl is a deadly culprit, she said. “We have tracked deaths related to fentanyl use. There was a 400 percent increase leading into 2014-15 and that number has already doubled this year – and it is only mid-September. This is not just in Miami-Dade County, but all over.”

Since March 1, police supervisors for each shift in Delray Beach have been carrying Narcan nasal spray to help save people overdosing on heroin. Police Chief Goldman told the audience the city recorded 195 overdoses last year and that number has risen to 394 this year.

The chief said the Delray department is using a multi-faceted drug enforcement mode that includes “Good Samaritan” laws to encourage people to report adverse drug reactions. Delray was also the first department in the county to carry the heroin antidote Narcan in emergency vehicles.

In Boca, said Chief Alexander, Narcan “is available.  What is unique about our challenge is that you don’t see the volume of cases. We’ve had about 80 overdoses and about 10 deaths.”

“It is very difficult,” he said, “for law enforcement to make a dent in this situation because people are getting their drugs from outside the city, such as on the internet.”

Officials from most cities at the meeting said the heroin situation is being complicated by drug takers who ingest a combination of heroin and other drugs such as fentanyl.

Chief Alexander pointed to one aspect of the problem that no one else mentioned.  “Each of these cases involves a person who has overdosed.  There is an impact on the officers who investigate. They have to deal with the trauma of these cases.”