Times Staff Writer
Opioid use has become a national drug epidemic, seizing the spotlight of media and public officials. But in Pasco County, methamphetamine use is an epidemic of its own.
Last year, Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies made on average nearly two methamphetamine-related arrests per day, according to data released in January by the Sheriff’s Office. That was more arrests than for any other drug, barring marijuana.
Pasco County deputies made 725 meth-related arrests in 2017, up from 439 arrests in 2016.
Pasco is a part of a larger state trend, where meth’s presence has grown year-after-year. In a November 2017 report by Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, data from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission showed 327 deaths caused by methamphetamines in 2016, up from 156 in 2015 and 88 in 2014.
Pasco Sheriff’s Captain Mike Jenkins said that meth "is, and always has been in recent history, prevalent in Pasco County." Jenkins leads the department’s special investigation division, which includes the narcotics unit. He began with the Sheriff’s Office in 2000.
"There’s a lot of meth that is accessible," Jenkins said.
Monica Rousseau wasn’t surprised by the numbers either. Rousseau, a coordinator at Pasco County’s Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, or ASAP, said the data "makes complete sense."
"It’s been hovering," Rousseau said. "It’s been brewing."
ASAP works with the Sheriff’s Office, teachers, kids, hospitals and parents to prevent addiction.
Meth is making a comeback mostly because "it’s inexpensive and readily available," Jenkins said, but the meth supply chain has changed.
"In the past, we had situations where people were producing their own meth locally," Jenkins said. "We’re not seeing as much of that."
Since the pharmaceutical industry began to restrict who could buy products commonly used to produce meth and how much they could buy, "meth cooks are fairly rare," he said. Now meth is coming from outside the country.
"Pasco County and the Tampa Bay Area is well known among (Mexican) cartel routes," Jenkins said.
In response to the increased meth activity, the Sheriff’s Office Strategic Targeted Area Response, or STAR teams, target prolific offenders and high crime areas, according to its website.
Public health professionals saw the first indications that meth use was increasing in December 2016, Rousseau said.
It began with an increase in Hepatitis C and B cases, she said, which showed that more people were using and sharing needles. Other indicators were on the rise, too.
Judges reported more meth-related cases in their courtrooms, hospitals saw increased psychoses from meth, and local residents reported seeing dirty needles in public places, according to Rousseau.
In July 2017, ASAP published a report about the drug and alcohol indicators in the county that illuminated increased meth use. The report said that from 2015 to 2016, meth-related offenses increased 121 percent in Pasco County.
In 2016, 169 people who were admitted into Pasco’s BayCare Behavioral Health facilities said meth was their drug of choice. That was up 72 percent from 2012, when 98 adults and teens who were admitted said they primarily used meth.
Pasco County drug arrests overall were higher in 2017 than in recent years, with 3,098 arrests, according to the Sheriff’s Office. In 2016, there were 2,493 arrests.
Holiday, New Port Richey and Dade City are "pretty busy" with drug arrests and use, according to a spokesperson from the Sheriff’s Office.
Kent Runyon has spent 25 years in human services working with homeless veterans, low-income seniors, drug and alcohol treatment, and more. He said Pasco residents are seeing a "significant increase" in meth use and presence in the community.
Runyon is the vice president of community relations at Novus Medical Detox Center in New Port Richey.
For those suffering with a meth addiction, he said, "it impacts every chapter of their life.
"You’ll typically see it begin with relationships … Then it moves to employment and school," Runyon said. "Meth is making a comeback. It just isn’t getting attention."
Rousseau said ASAP is trying to figure out how to get people to stop before they’re addicted and how to help people who are recovering to thrive.
"We have specific strategies for opioid prevention at this time, but we will be in planning mode for meth prevention for the next few months," Rousseau said.
Recently, ASAP applied for a grant that would fund meth and opioid prevention activities over three years, Rousseau said.
"(Addiction) is a complex, evolving, chronic illness," she said. "We have to make sure that we’re comprehensive in making sure people are well."
Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at [email protected] Follow @tylisajohnson.