Jacksonville has the highest rate of fentanyl-related deaths in the state, according to an annual Florida Department of Law Enforcement report.
The Duval County area has the second highest number of fentanyl-related deaths in the state, behind Palm Beach County. But relative to its population, there is no other place in Florida where the crisis is more pronounced.
In 2016, the powerful synthetic opioid was either explicitly responsible for or present in 281 deaths in Jacksonville — more than a whopping 500 percent increase over the year before, when it was only found in 56 deaths.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, recently took over as the chairman of the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee. He said treatment programs will be one of his biggest budgetary considerations during next year’s legislative session.
“We have a crisis on our hands. We have no choice but to address it. Budgeting effectively and efficiently is about making choices and this is certainly a priority because it is so deeply affecting so many families in Florida,” he said. “It’s hard to come across a family that hasn’t been affected by drug addiction.”
Overall, opioid-related deaths in Florida increased 35 percent over the previous year. The drugs, whether illicit or prescribed, were present in more than 5,700 people when they passed away. But because multiple drugs are usually found in the deceased, it’s harder to get a clear picture of how many died as a result of opioids in Jacksonville or whether it was incidental.
Bradley said in addition to adding more funding for treatment programs, he’d like to see a tightening of controls for prescription drugs and a move away from a law enforcement first attitude toward dealing with the crisis.
“I think it’s clear at this point in time in our nation’s history and our state’s history that we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem. Fighting drug addiction, whether be opioids or other types of drugs, requires more than attacking the supply side of the equation through law enforcement,” he said. “We need to tackle the demand side of the equation and have more effective strategies as a country and as a state in dealing with addiction issues.”
Governor Rick Scott declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis in May and President Donald Trump did the same last month.
Scott is asking the legislature to pass a $53 million budget package meant to fund law enforcement stings and treatment programs to tamp down on the worsening addiction crisis. For years Florida has ranked close to last among states for funding mental health and substance abuse programs, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In Jacksonville, city leaders are considering a lawsuit against prescription opioid manufacturers. This week city council members said they’d choose an outside law firm to represent them some time in December.
The lawsuit follows a new $1.4 million city pilot program, spearheaded by Dr. Raymond Pomm, which is meant to start treating addiction as soon as an overdose patient arrives at the emergency room.