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Prescription drug-related deaths spike locally (with report)

Fatalities caused by prescription drug abuse are quickly rising in Florida and Manatee County.

State statistics show deaths from the prescription painkiller oxycodone jumped 26 percent in 2009 from the previous year.

In the 12th Judicial Circuit, made up of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, there were 92 deaths from oxycodone, up 70.4 percent from 54 deaths in 2008. In all, there were 403 deaths in the three-county area from drugs specified in the report. That’s up 7.2 percent from the 376 deaths in 2008.

Statistics were not broken down by county.

Two separate reports released this week by James C. Hall, director of Nova Southeastern University’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse, and the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, show more than 8,600 deaths in Florida in 2009 in which victims had at least one prescription drug in their system that contributed to their passing. That’s up from about 6,200 drug-induced deaths in 2008.

What’s more, both reports say almost all the increase in drug deaths is due to a disturbing and relatively new trend of drug abusers mixing opiates and narcotics like heroin and cocaine with opioids — prescription drugs like oxycodone — or simply switching indiscriminately from one to the other.

Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg far outpaced every other city in Florida in terms of prescription drug deaths, according to the reports.

The practice of “combining narcotics and opiates has the potential to lead to a new drug epidemic unlike any we’ve seen since cocaine really took off in the early 1980s,” Hall said.

Florida is a leading source for the illicit purchase of prescription drugs, with addicts and dealers from across the Southeast flocking to pain clinics.

Prescription drugs continued to outpace illegal drugs as a cause of death last year, accounting for almost 2,500 fatalities. Drug control officials say the vast majority are accidental overdoses.

The state is launching a database to track painkiller sales that lawmakers hope will prevent the same patient from receiving narcotics from multiple doctors.

In the 12th circuit, deaths from alprazolam, which includes Xanax, were up 10.8 percent; from diazepam, which includes Valium, were up 11.8 percent; and from propoxyphene, a pain killer, were up 75 percent (from eight deaths to 14).

There was a decline in deaths from methadone, by 9.1 percent; from morphine, by 9.5 percent; from cocaine, by 21.3 percent; and from heroin, by 78.9 percent (from 19 deaths to four.)

Still, the reports have silver linings in that they show juveniles across the state are not abusing drugs as often or in as great portions as adults, said Pat Castillo, vice president of the United Way of Broward County’s Commission on Substance Abuse.

“No death by unnatural causes is a good thing, especially not when drugs are involved,” she says. “But what these reports tell us is that minors still aren’t using as much as their adult counterparts. And thus they’re not dying as much from drug abuse. So there is still hope to prevent our youngest generation from developing reckless addictions.”

However, both reports indicated “downward trending,” in the ages of people abusing prescription drugs and trying them in tandem with narcotics and opiates.

“It’s a slow trend, because right now alcohol is still the drug of choice for minors,” Castillo says. “But it’s crucial if we want to prevent this from blowing up that we prevent minors who struggle with alcohol, or other substances some people consider tame, from adding prescription drugs to their addictions.”

— The Associated Press and Miami Herald contributed to this report.