MANATEE -- Heroin is deadly on its own. But Manatee County's heroin supply became even more lethal in 2014 as drug dealers started mixing in fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller, leading to 150 or more deaths in 2015 and more than 1,300 overdoses.
But fentanyl has started disappearing from the local heroin supply, and Manatee County officials are crediting law enforcement efforts.
"We've been looking for it, but we have not found fentanyl as much as we did back at the peak in July and June. We continue to look for it and we continue to test the heroin that our undercovers are purchasing, but we're not finding any fentanyl there," said Capt. Todd Shear with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. "But I don't want everybody to relax, because that's something that could easily be brought back into the mixture of heroin."
Sheriff Brad Steube echoed Shear's concerns, even as he believes the tactics used by the sheriff's office have been effective.
"We're targeting dealers, we're encouraging users to get help, we're educating," Steube said. "I think we're doing everything that we need to be doing."
Fentanyl is about 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and though heroin can be deadly on its own, mixing fentanyl into it makes it much stronger and more deadly. In 2015, deaths due to fentanyl have surpassed deaths due to heroin for the first time, said Dr. Russell Vega, chief medical examiner for the 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties.
There were 81 total confirmed deaths due to heroin and fentanyl in Manatee County through August 2015. Of those, 67 deaths were due to fentanyl, 31 were due to heroin and 17 were a mixture of the two. There are 134 likely drug overdose cases pending with Vega's office through 2015, and Vega said at least half those are likely to be heroin and fentanyl.
Several law enforcement operations resulted in trafficking arrests toward the end of September and beginning of October, just as overdose numbers started to decrease. Arrested were both smaller suspected dealers and large-volume distributors, such as Damien Tremaine Ross, who was arrested in November after deputies found 82.1 grams of heroin, 83.3 grams of rock cocaine and 675.4 grams of powder cocaine in his vehicle, all packaged in larger bags for distribution. One hit of heroin is typically 0.1 gram.
"He was actually out on bond on a Bradenton Police Department case for a drug-related charge, he comes out, he's on the streets, he continues to do the same thing he was doing before, he has a large amount of heroin, a large amount of cocaine in the car, lots of money, and just selling right out in the open," Shear said. "It was a significant arrest for us because here's a person who continually has no feelings whatsoever about the people that have this addiction disease, or their families."
Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said most dealer arrests have come down through the sheriff's office.
"I listen to the scanner in my office, and I will say we're not having the overdose numbers and calls that we did," Radzilowski said. "They've definitely gone down."
Drug seizures soar
Drug seizure numbers in Manatee are huge in 2015. The sheriff's office seized 2,328.7 grams of heroin through November 2015, which doesn't include federal cases in the area when drugs are seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration. That's up from 296.6 grams in 2014 and 25.7 grams in 2013.
Shear credits some of that success to community support. The sheriff's office received 171 tips from the public in 2015 about heroin activity, giving law enforcement priceless eyes and ears throughout the community.
Just as much credit, Shear said, goes to the detectives and deputies on the streets, who have been aggressive in pursuing drug dealers. The sheriff's office has made 70 arrests relating to heroin in 2015, and more than half of those arrests have been on charges of trafficking in heroin. Sometimes investigators can only get enough evidence for a sale or possession charge, even if they know the accused person is trafficking the drug. Possession charges are rarely leveled against people who law enforcement believes is just a user, Shear said.
"We might not be able to bust someone and get a trafficking charge on them, but we know it, they're selling, and they probably have a trafficking amount," Shear said. "It's just that by the time we make the arrest of them, 'Well they've only sold to me three times at a tenth of a gram.' Still a sale charge, still significant, but can I charge them with trafficking? No, because they don't have the trafficking amount on them, they only have 2 grams on them.
"And sometimes drug dealers are smart, and they're not going to carry a large quantity on them ... sometimes we can only get a couple sale charges on them, and sometimes it's just possession."
'Don't get complacent'
Melissa Larkin-Skinner, chief clinical officer at Centerstone Florida, an addiction treatment facility formerly known as Manatee Glens, said those efforts have been working to drive down the number of deaths and overdoses they've seen. That means her patients continue to have chances to get clean, rather than have their lives cut short.
"That's positive, but with that I don't know that fewer people are using heroin, necessarily," Larkin-Skinner said. "I know that more people are seeking help, at least in this community, which is a good thing."
Shear's glad to see the overdose numbers backslide, but he doesn't want people to get complacent. The sheriff's office is still pursuing some major cases, and just because fentanyl has started fading doesn't mean that heroin and substance abuse in general isn't a problem, and it certainly doesn't mean that drug dealers are going away on their own.
"Our deputies really care. They live in this community and they understand that these folks that are trafficking - they don't care about you, or me or our families. They don't care about how it destroys and breaks families apart," Shear said. "It's destroying families, and we take that personally from a law enforcement standpoint. We're going to do everything we can to protect families, and what we can do in the special investigations division is catch people that are trafficking, get that supply off the street, and get these folks that have addictions the help they need, because there are resources out there."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby