Commentary: Florida’s Drug Overdose Epidemic

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a new report that undoubtedly surprised many across our nation: In Florida alone, prescription (Rx) drug overdoses claimed 16,650 lives from 2003 to 2009 — an average of eight deaths a day.

I’m sure they are wondering: What in the world is going on in the Sunshine State?

For me, and so many others on the frontline of fighting prescription pill abuse in Florida, the report documents an epidemic that we have lived with for more than a decade.

Rx drug overdoses have been a devastating problem here, spread by the silence and misunderstanding over addiction and by the underworld “pill mill” economy run by rogue doctors and pharmacists who encourage “doctor shopping.”

We weren’t shocked by the CDC numbers showing that annual prescription drug overdose deaths jumped by 61 percent, from 1,804 to 2,905, during those years. Prescription medications, for example, were implicated in 76 percent of all drug overdose deaths in Florida, while illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine were implicated in 33 percent of the deaths.

Prescription drug abuse is, unfortunately, a part of daily life across Florida. You can’t overlook it.

Go on the Internet, turn on the radio, look at the billboards along highways and you’ll find countless advertisements for pain clinics offering incentives to visit their many locations, which are conveniently placed at major intersections and strip malls.

Anti-drug advocates have done their best to counter this ad blitz and the general perception, especially among teenagers, that misusing Rx pills isn’t dangerous.

Following the back-to-back overdose deaths of several teenagers, Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force expanded its blunt school presentations to highlight how easy it is to overdose on pharmaceuticals.

Our partner agency, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, established a solid profile of a typical victim of a drug overdose, based on information compiled from hundreds of drug-death investigations. This profile is now being used to educate the public about realities of who is truly susceptible to prescription abuse.

Additonally, NOPE created support groups to a growing number of families who have lost loved ones, to an accidental overdose or alcohol or drug-related incident, offering a place to seek comfort and guidance among fellow mourners. We also designed a handbook for police officers and family members that provides guidance on coping with death and understanding drug addiction.

And that’s just our work. Many other organizations in Florida have done their share to highlight the deadly effects of prescription drug abuse.

Still, as we now know from the CDC statists, none of this was enough to stop the fast spread of the epidemic.

Today, we have new and powerful forces in our court: a governor, attorney general and state legislators who have passed measures to control excessive prescriptions by pain doctors and clinics; and President Obama, whose administration has drafted a comprehensive action plan on prescription drug abuse.

Tragically, hundreds of people are still dying from drug overdoses in the Sunshine State. But hopefully, in the very near future, these new government initiatives, along with the grassroots educational efforts, will bring those numbers down and end this terrible chapter in our state’s history.

Karen H. Perry, Executive Director of NOPE Task Force

9 Responses to Commentary: Florida’s Drug Overdose Epidemic

  1. Eric Hulsey | August 23, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    As someone who has been providing overdose prevention training and naloxone distribution to those at risk of opiate overdose I find it quite troubling that this article does not reference the growing body of literature or range of approaches to prescribing naloxone (and just a few dollars to fill) to those at risk of opiate overdose. This includes any person who uses opiates from those using heroin to any person prescribed an opiate analgesic for pain.

    • Carlos | August 26, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      It is typical Eric, I remember not too long ago, that treatment facility wouldn’t mention the words “syringe exchange” or “clean needles”, and most facilities still not do many discussions. They rather talk about Hoes and condoms, syringe exchange is a dirty word implying enabling. I have wonder many times how many lives we can save by having truly open conversations about vain care, syringe cleaning, drug over doze prevention and numerous other issues about health. After all, I thought treatment is about health. In New Mexico where they had significant amount of opiates over dose in the 90s is now legal for a person to carry a canister natrexon nose spray. Last data I have heard they do not seem to be having the problems my State of Florida if having I have frequently gotten the idea that treatment is no longer about the patient, but about what we the counselors and politicians want. We have a long way to go before treatment becomes about health. About saving peoples’ lives and keeping them healthy. I was given a scholarship to go to “Reducing Harm & Building Communities: Addressing Drug Use in the South”. Am bringing this article with me we have to take a look and see “the fear that we are” and start breaking our own biases and learn how to make an impact on individuals and their communities. There way too many issues to deal with pharmaceuticals over doses not just opiates but combination with xanax, alcohol and other downers. I probably spend more time talking about the danger of mixing downers than assisting patients obtain clean syringes (which are still illegal in Florida). We are still dealing with our illustrious governor Rick Scott law. I just keep crossing my fingers that something good will come out of it. He is already doing his own proofiness about how well his law worked, but according to this article. We still ignoring research or just read the ones we believe fit our own hypothesis. People, we have to learn science, as a nation we are way pass behind our citizens understanding of science especially in our own field. To a great degree we are responsible for our patients obtaining the accurate information, not the pop psychology, new age, politically correct. My bias is that I believe treatment and assessment ought to be driven by empirical research, all of it, not just the ones I like. We truly have to work from where the patient is at, not from where we wish or demand they ought to be. That’s basic counseling skills. Jim Hall, epidemiologist from Up Front Drug Information Center in Miami could have contributed to this article. He has been doing the DOWNE report for the FEDS for decades now.

  2. Jeff | August 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I think only part of the problem is abuse (although it’s a significant part). I also believe a significant part is people’s inability to get medication they feel they need. Doctors are so careful about prescribing pain medication now that patients are suffering for lack of adequate pain management. When you go to your doctor and request pain medication you get the “look” and “treatment” as if you are exhibiting drug seeking behavior. Many people are uncomfortable with this and therefore do not even ask even when they have legitimate pain. This is the effect of overly aggressive drug policies where some believe the means justifies the end. There are many ways to deal with the problem without patient/client suffering.

  3. John French | August 23, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    How many practitioners and dispensers were convicted for any crime in all this time for illegally fostering this mayhem? On the other hand, this is a natural experiment for what happens when drugs are made available without restrictions. It is a lesson to be learned if we are ever to have reasonable drug laws.

    • kevin | August 24, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      You can’t legislate drug abuse… People will always find a way to get their drug of choice and abuse it if they so desire…. Fire is freely available to everyone and not many people are setting themselves or others on fire…. There will always be drug addicts and abusers. The war on drugs is a farce…

  4. Joan Boughton | August 24, 2011 at 8:00 am

    The fact that Gov. Scott has slashed funding for Mental Health and Addiction services in our state does not bode well for the near future!

  5. Eva | August 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I wonder what would happen if there were an educational requirement for getting a quantity of opiates. I never knew they were addictive when I first experienced chronic severe pain. I asked for a very low dose of the valium I was given for muscle spasms because I knew I could get hooked on them, yet no one, doctor, nurse or pharmacist told me what can happen with prolonged use of codeine or vicodin. I just thought I got GI bugs more than any human on the planet. Then all of a sudden I was labeled an addict, told not to try saying my pills were stolen or dropped in the dish water and that I would get only this one last prescription. Nobody gave a damn about the sciatica pain I still managed to suffer from. If people, doctors too, were educated about possible tolerance and dependence, there would be an opportunity to plan and it would open the door for honest dialog between the doctor and patient. One of the worst possible scenarios is for the doctors to decide not to use the most effective drugs to treat severe pain and to be looking for the hidden addict to emerge so they can punish them into “sobriety”. There are risks with all drugs, even Tylenol. Teaching people about the risks and responsibilities that go with them might save a lot of people and open the door for some honest, beneficial treatment planning.

  6. kevin | August 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Don’t blame the doctors or pharmacists… We have to take responsibility for our decisions and actions…, and quit blaming others who are not responsible for our choice of being a drug addict… Anyway, it helps reduce the population of useless idiots. Banking lines will be shorter and they won’t be missed…

  7. Skye | August 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    In addition to Naloxone and overdose prevention trainings like SKOOP and SCARE ME, Good Samaritan 911 Legislation and injecting rooms are some of the most promising interventions to prevent overdose deaths. The actions of the government to change prescribing practices is a start but we need greater access to treatment and implementation of overdose prevention measures in every state.

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