Florida Fentanyl Deaths Jumped 135 Percent, but State Wants to Arrest More Addicts

Florida is is in the midst of a deadly heroin public-health emergency. Yet the governor might soon sign a bill that public health advocates say would make the problem far worse by introducing new mandatory minimums instead of putting more money into treatment and prevention.

A new report by the Florida Medical Examiner's Office shows that fentanyl-related deaths in the Sunshine State jumped 135 percent — 410 more — in the first half of 2016, compared to the first half of the previous year. The report also shows that heroin-linked deaths also jumped by 25 percent, and opioid deaths overall are reaching levels unseen in state history.

"Occurrences of fentanyl and fentanyl analog-caused deaths significantly increased in the first half of 2016," the report says. According to the newly released figures, 803 Floridians died of fentanyl-related overdoses in just the first half of 2016, and 183 died after overdosing on so-called fentanyl analogs. An additional 434 people died after ingesting heroin, and 878 died with some semblance of morphine in their system. There were also 240 methadone-related deaths.

Those figures don't even include regular prescription painkillers: 632 people died with oxycodone in their systems, and 325 died with hydrocodone in their systems. (Because addicts often ingest multiple drugs at once, it's often difficult for medical examiners to pinpoint exactly which drugs were the cause of death.)

The spike stems from rampant prescription painkiller abuse and overprescription. Yet the Florida Legislature apparently believes the state can arrest its way out of a public-health crisis while doing next to nothing to punish the pharmaceutical companies that push opiates such as OxyContin.

This past Friday, the state Senate passed a monstrosity of a fentanyl bill. If signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it will introduce new mandatory minimum prison sentences (and extremely steep fines) for some users caught with fentanyl. Drug-reform advocates call the measure a nightmare and have questioned why the Legislature is pushing it when bipartisan consensus has emerged that the War on Drugs has failed.

"This bill has been presented the exact same way as all the other mandatory-minimum bills that have been presented through the years," Greg Newburn, the state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told New Times in April. "Nothing changed."

The bill is pitched as an attempt to crack down on fentanyl dealers, to discourage them from selling synthetic opiates to addicts.

But sentencing-reform advocates — who say sentences are already far too harsh on drug users in Florida — warn that the thresholds for who is considered a "dealer" are far too low, and the state is just going to end up arresting low-level addicts, forcing them into prison, and further ruining their lives.

The 167-page bill labels fentanyl, fentanyl mixtures, and other, more powerful synthetic opiates as Schedule I drugs. It also labels anyone caught with four grams or more of fentanyl as a "fentanyl trafficker" subject to a mandatory three-year prison term. From there, it traps people caught with 14 grams of fentanyl with 15 years in prison and sends people caught with 28 grams of fentanyl to jail for 25 years. Judges would not be able to alter those sentences, and the prison terms would also come with mandatory fines of $50,000 to $500,000.

Newburn, the drug-reform advocate, warned that not only are those thresholds frighteningly low — in some cases it would take only a handful of pills for someone to be labeled a trafficker — but also many addicts simply don't know what sort of drugs they're buying until they've either overdosed or been arrested. Addicts often buy pills labeled as OxyContin without knowing the pills are really cut with fentanyl or other drugs. Often users find out only after they've been arrested and the drugs have been tested by cops.

And, even more frustrating, we've been here before: Florida has, for decades, had a similar mandatory-minimum schedule in place to arrest alleged heroin traffickers too. That hasn't worked out well: Low-level addicts get arrested all the time and trapped in jail, and heroin use climbed to historic levels.

The staggering statistics for heroin deaths released Friday only make that point clearer.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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