MANATEE -- A sharp drop in illicit prescription drug abuse led to fewer deaths in 2012 and indicates the statewide drug enforcement teams created by Gov. Rick Scott in March 2011 are working, according to law enforcement officials.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Assistant Commissioner Mark Zadra released the 2012 "Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons" report Tuesday by Florida medical examiners showing deaths caused by Oxycodone plunged 41 percent in 2012 and overall prescription drug deaths fell 9.9 percent.
The FDLE reported 8,330 drug-related deaths last year, according to the study, down from 9,135 in 2011. The number of drug-related deaths is the lowest since the state began issuing the report in 2008.
"With Florida at a 42-year crime low it's thanks to our heroes in law enforcement that Florida families are safer today," Scott said in a press release.
Scott worked with Bondi and Florida lawmakers to close the legal loopholes that allowed illegitimate doctors and pharmacies to dispense drugs under the guise of a pain clinic.
"Overall the report is positive," said Gretl Plessinger, FDLE Office of Public Information. "We've seen a significant drop in prescription drug abuse and we're happy about that. It's the first full report since regional drug task forces came into play. Since those task forces have come into play we've seen a 50 percent drop in Oxycodone abuse."
In the 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, there were 524 drug-related deaths in 2012, down 14 percent from 609 in 2011. Of those, 196 had prescription drugs, not illicit drugs, in their systems, according to the report.
The drop was almost across the board when looking at statistics for deaths caused by a particular drug. In the 12th Judicial District, deaths caused by cocaine increased from 54 in 2011 to 60 in 2012 and deaths caused by heroin increased from two to eight.
The drugs responsible for the most deaths in the 12th Judicial District in 2012 were Oxycodone and alprazolam, or Xanax, with 62 each. That's down from 89 and 91, respectively, in 2011.
Closing the pill mills Florida had become infamous for was integral to slowing the illicit prescription trade, Plessinger said.
"Our strike forces have gone in and identified pill mills, shut them down, made arrests and seized the pharmaceuticals, so we're closing the pipeline," she said.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said Oxycodone, opiate-based pills and powdered cocaine remain a scourge in the county.
"We've had some heroin seizures, too," Steube said. "Not a lot. But unfortunately you can't say that it's not here."
Heroin is not on the list of drugs causing the most Florida deaths yet it's listed No. 1 in the report as the most harmful drug.
"Heroin is lethal," Plessinger said. "What we've seen is, if people are abusing heroin, it's going to kill them. Our heroin numbers have increased but are still relatively small. Our heroin deaths are about at the same level as they were in 2005."
Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said he's noticed a downward trend in illegal scrip drug abuse. But he said drugs are like playing Whack-a-Mole: Stop one and two others pop up.
"I think my biggest fear is for the heroin and meth to get a hold in the city and county," Radzilowski said. "What I believe is happening is law enforcement is putting so much pressure on diversion of drugs like Oxycodone that users find heroin and meth as a substitute, and the new rainbow tabs of LSD. It's driven by economics."
The drugs that caused the most Florida deaths in 2012 were Oxycodone, alprazolam, ethyl alcohol, cocaine, methadone, morphine, hydrocodone and diazepam.
Radzilowski and Steube said legalizing marijuana would make it that much harder to control illicit drug abuse.
"Marijuana legalization, I think it's a big mistake," Radzilowski said. "I don't think it would work. It brings other drugs and other crime. It opens a huge can of worms."
Steube worked narcotics in Manatee County for about eight years. He said he's seen the damage marijuana can do up close.
"When you actually look at the THC (the active agent in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol) and what it does to the fatty tissues of the brain and reproductive organs over a period of time that can lead to birth defects, you would be convinced the legalization of marijuana would be the wrong way to go."
Terry O'Connor, Night Metro Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7040 or e-mail email@example.com.