1 opioid overdose each 2 hours in South Florida epidemic

Drug Enforcement Administration / MGN

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) – Someone overdoses on heroin or other opioid drugs in South Florida every two hours, part of a growing drug abuse epidemic affecting wide swaths of the country, law enforcement officials said Thursday.

Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said at a summit meeting Thursday on the problem that more than 1,400 deaths were traceable in 2015 to opioid overdoses mainly in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Some cities have seen the biggest spikes: Delray Beach, for example, had 195 overdoses in 2015 and already has 394 so far this year, said police Chief Jeff Goldman.

“It’s the most urgent public health challenge we face,” Ferrer said at the event held at Lynn University in Boca Raton. “This addiction has no boundaries. It’s everywhere. Anyone can be a victim.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has reported that more people died across the U.S. from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record, with 60 percent involving an opioid drug such as heroin or the powerful prescription painkiller fentanyl. In South Florida, Ferrer said, there were more than 1,400 deaths out of 4,800 such overdoses last year.

President Barack Obama’s administration has proposed spending about $1 billion for treatment and prevention of opioid and heroin addiction. But at the local level in South Florida, law enforcement and health officials are struggling to combat the epidemic and halt the spread of deaths.

The driving force behind the rise of heroin laced fentanyl or close drug variants is greed, said John McKenna, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s South Florida office. He said a kilogram of heroin can cost up to $60,000 on the street, while black market fentanyl usually bought on the internet from China can cost just $2,000 for the same amount.

“The bottom line, it’s all about the money,” McKenna said. Drug dealers, he added, “don’t care about anybody out on the streets.”

The increasing frequency of combining heroin with synthetic painkillers often means users have no idea about the potency of the drug they are taking, officials said. And medical examiners struggle to identify variant drugs when they are determining a cause of death – meaning the scope of the problem us often underreported.

“It’s quite a challenge,” said Agnes Winokur, associate director of the DEA’s Southeast Regional Laboratory. “It’s difficult to determine the different combinations.”

Fire rescue and law enforcement personnel now are increasingly carrying an inhalant known as Narcan that can be an effective antidote to an opioid overdose. But that can cost governments tens of thousands of dollars, said Fort Lauderdale Fire Department Battalion Chief Daniel Oatmeyer.

“We know the confirmed (overdose) cases are going to go up,” he said. “We’re out there. We’re doing the best we can.”

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