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Trendy heroin gets deadlier for Floridians

Cheap, easy-to-use heroin fueled a big jump in the number of overdose deaths in Florida last year, according to a report released Friday.

A total of 123 people died of heroin overdoses last year, a 46 percent increase over 1995. Authorities attributed the jump in part to growing popularity among young people of a highly purified form of the drug that is inhaled.

"There's a tendency among young people to say if they don't have to inject it, it's safe," said Liz Hirst, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which produced the report. "That's inaccurate. People are dying from it."

While the Orlando area remained the center of heroin use in the state, the St. Petersburg district, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties, came in fourth in death rate among the state's 24 medical examiner districts. Sixteen people died of heroin overdoses in Pasco and Pinellas counties last year, compared with four in 1995.

Heroin use is one trend where Hillsborough County lags far behind Pinellas and Pasco. With the 11th highest death rate per capita in the state, Hillsborough County had three heroin deaths last year and one in 1995. Citrus and Hernando counties recorded no heroin deaths last year, the report said.

Pinellas County law enforcement officials said they are watching the heroin problem, but have yet to see large amounts of the drug on the street.

Pinellas sheriff's Lt. Bill Queen, of the narcotics unit, said his unit made 10 to 20 arrests last year, most of them involving "dime" bags of less than one-tenth of a gram.

The popularity of the drug is a matter of economics: Heroin is now as cheap as crack cocaine and easier to use.

"The price is so low, it's now competitive with other drugs," Queen said. "You can buy a vial of this for 10 bucks."

Hirst said the new form of the drug is more pure, makes it more attractive for users to inhale it rather than inject it.

That has made it popular among young people, especially those who travel around the state to go to late-night rave parties in abandoned warehouses and all-night dance clubs.

"We don't have a direct connection, but the popularity of rave clubs are presenting an environment where heroin may be picked up and used and experimented with," Hirst said.

The drug has become more popular nationwide, coming into the country along the same drug routes used by cocaine and marijuana traffickers.

Hirst said that law enforcement officials think there is overlap between the different groups of drug producers.

"There's definite connections there," Hirst said.

Heroin deaths

on the rise.

Last year, 123 people died in Florida due to heroin. Here is a ranking of heroin death rates by state medical examiner districts. The cities listed are the centers of population in each of the districts.

Rank District Deaths Rate+

1. Orlando 30 3.3

2. Gainesville 5 1.6

3. Miami 31 1.5

4. St. Petersburg++ 16 1.3

5. West Palm Beach 11 1.1

6. Fort Lauderdale 14 1.0

7. Sanford 3 0.9

8. Port Charlotte 1 0.8

9. Fort Myers 3 0.7

10. Melbourne 2 0.4

11. Tampa 3 0.3

12. Daytona Beach 1 0.2

13. Jacksonville 2 0.2

14. Pensacola 1 0.2

+ Rate is per 100,000 population.

++ Includes Pasco County

Note: Hernando and Citrus Counties are part of the Leesburg district, which reported no heroin deaths. The other 10 medical examiner districts also reported no heroin deaths.

SOURCE: Florida Department of Law Enforcement