Scourge of heroin rears its ugly head

November 17, 2013 

Manatee Glens officials say they are seeing an increase in patients being treated for heroin addiction.

Just as the state of Florida douses one fire, another one breaks out. When the blaze is fueled by drug abuse and addiction, that outcome is entirely predictable. Addicts will feed their habit one way or another.

As Herald police reporter Jessica de Leon chronicled earlier this month, Manatee County is witnessing a spike in heroin use in the wake of the state's crackdown on pill mills and fraudulent prescription drug purchases.

After adopting tighter laws governing the dispensing, sale and purchase of legal narcotics -- by clamping down on illegitimate doctors and pharmacies posing as pain clinics -- Florida celebrated a steep drop in illicit prescription drug abuse.

In September, the state's top law enforcement officials released a report entitled "Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons." Composed by Florida medical examiners, the findings showed Oxycodone-caused deaths plummeted 41 percent and overall prescription drug fatalities dropped 9.9 percent. The total number of deaths -- 8,330 -- represents the lowest since the state began compiling figures in 2008, Herald editor Terry O'Connor reported.

While that victory is significant, another battle looms. In the 12th Judicial District, which encompasses Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, the number of deaths caused by cocaine rose from 54 two years ago to 60 in 2012. Heroin deaths grew from two to eight.

But O'Connor reported last week that over the seven-day period that ended on Nov. 5, 13 overdoses led to at least eight deaths in Manatee County, as outlined by two longtime emergency medical service personnel. Whether heroin is to blame is unknown.

"It's disturbing," Capt. Larry Luh, the public safety acting chief of Manatee County Emergency Medical Service, stated when recounting the recent seven-day string of overdoses. "It's kind of mind-boggling, to tell you the truth."

Still, this year's recent string of heroin-related overdose fatalities in Manatee County alone could indicate a troubling trend here -- a trend already established across the nation.

Heroin, cheaper than cocaine and prescription drugs, is no longer taboo. Heroin use has skyrocketed 79 percent over the past five years -- to the highest level since the 1970s, Bloomberg News reported last week. Users do not fit the old ghetto stereotype either, with younger, more affluent Americans likely from suburbs and small towns.

Worse yet, today's heroin is more potent than decades ago -- increasing the odds of an overdose and death. The medical examiners' 2012 report lists heroin as the most harmful drug.

Manatee County medical professionals are rightly concerned about the uptick in heroin deaths. Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski told O'Connor that his narcotics officers are reporting an increase in heroin on the street.

Manatee Glens, the county's premier mental health caregiver for children and adults with behavioral, addiction and other issues, is experiencing a significant increase in the number of patients linked to heroin use. That's actually a good thing.

The idea that drug abusers are morally weak and simply lack the willpower to change heir behavior and quit is misguided.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states drug addiction is a complex brain disease that requires more than a strong will and good intentions to overcome. Drugs alter the brain's structure and function in ways that nourish abuse.

By combining addiction treatment medications with behavioral therapy, patients stand the best chance at recovery, research indicates. Drug addiction can be managed successfully, the NIDA states, and relapse does not signal treatment failure but rather that treatment should be resumed.

The most effective way to reduce drug abuse, however, is prevention programs that involve families, schools, communities and the media, NIDA research shows. When education and outreach convinces youth that drug abuse is harmful and they then understand the risks, they tend to avoid drugs.

Manatee County is blessed with a number of prevention programs, in schools and youth organizations. With heroin use on the rise, the community should ramp up those efforts -- before the situation rages out of control as happened with prescription drugs.

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