The escalating rate of heroin overdoses in Florida is the predictable but disturbing byproduct of the state's crackdown on prescription drug abuse. Addicts are turning to heroin as an easier and cheaper source of opiates, and law enforcement, health care workers and public officials must be prepared with a broad and timely response to try to stem the growing addiction problem.
As Michael Van Sickler of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported, 68 heroin overdoses resulted in death in the first half of 2013, more than double compared to a year earlier, and the number of deaths is nearly four times higher than in 2011, according to a pending Florida Department of Law Enforcement report.
The percentages are alarming, but the numbers are small compared to the carnage from oxycodone, hydrocodone and other synthetic painkillers that led to more than 2,700 deaths in 2010, the height of the prescription drug epidemic in Florida. Still, it would be unwise to presume Florida's heroin numbers will level off considering the upward trend here and around the country.
In that regard, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: Florida's leaders can follow some of the forward-thinking responses used elsewhere. In New Jersey and New York, for instance, elected officials worked to allow emergency medical technicians to carry and administer naloxone, also known as Narcan, to counteract opiates in overdose cases. In New Hampshire, Gov. Peter Shumlin advocated greater treatment options for addicts instead of simply punishment and incarceration.
Heroin use damages the immune system, causes liver and kidney diseases, collapsed veins and cardiovascular damage and can trigger spontaneous miscarriages among women. The societal problems don't end in the emergency rooms, as increased drug use can bring burglaries and other property crimes by addicts trying to finance their habits.
More aggressive pursuit of dealers by law enforcement is generally part of any drug response template, but it can't be the exclusive action. Florida's prescription drug death rate didn't reverse direction until the Legislature approved new regulations for cash-only prescription-dispensing medical clinics and the state finally put in place a drug database to curb doctor shopping — a decade after Gov. Jeb Bush first proposed the drug monitoring program.
That foot-dragging cannot be repeated. Floridians shouldn't have to wait 10 years before somebody puts an emphasis on stopping the proliferation of heroin overdoses.