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Guest Column
Fentanyl deaths in Florida dropped slightly from a record toll, but 5,622 still died in ‘22
As a 21-year career federal prosecutor, I believe fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat we have ever faced, writes the author.
 
Police Officer Eric Hofstein displays the fentanyl he confiscated while patrolling the Civic Center Station BART platform in San Francisco in 2020.
Police Officer Eric Hofstein displays the fentanyl he confiscated while patrolling the Civic Center Station BART platform in San Francisco in 2020. [ San Francisco Chronicle via AP (2020) ]
Published Feb. 16

Every year, the Florida Medical Examiners release a report identifying the drugs that caused deaths in Florida. Several weeks ago, the medical examiners issued the 2022 report. For the first time in 12 years, the report showed a small decrease in deaths caused by fentanyl.

Roger B. Handberg
Roger B. Handberg [ 30 JPEG | Handout ]

As a 21-year career federal prosecutor, I believe fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat we have ever faced. The data reported by the Florida Medical Examiners supports this view. The medical examiners first included fentanyl-caused deaths in the 2003 annual report, reporting 124 deaths. From 2003 to 2013, the number of deaths ranged from 98 to 185.

Starting in 2014, the number of deaths increased dramatically, topping 1,000 in 2016, 2,000 in 2018, 3,000 in 2019, and 5,000 in 2020. The largest increase was from 2019 to 2020, when the number of deaths rose from 2,058 to 5,302. The number of deaths increased to its highest point in 2021 with 5,791 deaths and has now decreased about 3% in 2022 to 5,622.

Over a 19-year period, the number of deaths caused by fentanyl in Florida has increased more than 4,000%. Florida is not alone. In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a national alert on fentanyl as a threat to health and public safety. The DEA Administrator at the time stated, “Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety.”

Several factors have contributed to fentanyl’s terrible impact. Fentanyl is lethal in small doses. A potentially lethal dose can fit on the tip of a pen. Fentanyl is mixed with almost every type of drug, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and counterfeit pharmaceutical pills. Users often do not know they are taking fentanyl. The DEA laboratory found 7 out of 10 fake prescription pills it analyzed last year contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

This has been, and continues to be, an all-hands-on-deck situation. I commend the many members of the community, treatment providers, medical professionals, public officials and others who have made it a priority to pursue prevention and treatment strategies to address this crisis.

And I commend law enforcement agencies across Florida for their commitment to prioritizing enforcement. Enforcement is a critical part of any strategy to address the fentanyl crisis. My office serves 35 counties in Florida, with offices in Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando and Tampa. There is no part of our district that is not focused on disrupting the global fentanyl supply chain. These efforts include close teamwork by law enforcement agencies at every level of government. These efforts have resulted in many impactful fentanyl trafficking cases being prosecuted by State Attorney’s Offices, the Office of Statewide Prosecution and my office.

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As part of my office’s enforcement efforts, we have focused broadly on four items. First, my office has obtained indictments of Chinese companies and individuals who supply the precursor chemicals used to manufacture the fentanyl. Second, we have doubled our number of fentanyl prosecutions over the past two fiscal years and have seized over 55 million potentially lethal doses of fentanyl. Third, we have prosecuted drug traffickers whose distributions have caused deaths or serious bodily injury to subject them to enhanced statutory and sentencing penalties. And, fourth, we have prosecuted medical professionals who have contributed to the opioid epidemic through the illegal distribution or dispensing of opioids.

Our work is far from over. The disruption of the global fentanyl supply chain is a top priority of the United States Attorney’s Office. We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners and many others in communities across Florida who are addressing the fentanyl epidemic. It is only through our combined efforts that we will be able to make the greatest impact.

Roger B. Handberg is the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.