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Drug Deaths In Florida Down In First Half Of 2018

Emergency responders providing care to a patient in the back of an ambulance.
Peter Haden/WLRN
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

By Christine Sexton / News Service of Florida

The number of drug-related deaths in Florida, including those caused by opioids, declined in the first six months of 2018, compared to the first half of 2017, according to an interim report released by the state Medical Examiners Commission. 

There were 107,570 deaths in Florida during the first six months of 2018. Of the cases reviewed by the state’s medical examiners, toxicology results determined that 5,922 cases involved drugs.

The report contains the latest available data from the state and distinguishes between opioid-related deaths and opioid-caused deaths.

A drug is indicated as the cause of death “only when, after examining all (the) evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death,” the report states. “Opioid-related death” means the drug was found in the decedent but is not considered the cause of the death.

Both opioid-related deaths and opioid-caused deaths are down, the report shows.

There were 2,773 opioid-related deaths in the first half of 2018, a 10 percent decrease from the same time the prior year. And there were 1,841 opioid-caused deaths, which is a 13 percent decrease compared to 2017.

But while opioid-related deaths are down, the report also showed a dramatic increase in fatalities linked to fentanyl.  

Deaths caused by fentanyl spiked by 64 percent, and occurrences of fentanyl increased by 54 percent, according to the report.

"It is encouraging to see that drug-related deaths have gone down,” Florida Attorney General Ashely Moody said in a prepared statement provided to The News Service of Florida. “Unfortunately, we are still seeing higher rates of fentanyl-related deaths. These synthetic drugs are highly potent and extremely dangerous. We must continue to fight the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our country and taking 17 lives a day in our state alone.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the medical examiners’ report, most of the fentanyl involved in the Florida deaths was illicitly produced.

Fentanyl caused 1,101 deaths in Florida during the first half of 2018 --- more than any other drug --- followed by cocaine, which caused 844 deaths, and benzodiazepines, which killed 559 people, according to the report.

The most frequently occurring drugs found in the cases that were reviewed, the interim reports shows, were ethyl alcohol, benzodiazepines and cocaine found in cannabinoids, and morphine.

The report cautions, though, that the number of deaths related to morphine and heroin may not be accurate because the body rapidly metabolizes heroin into morphine. As a result, the number of morphine-related deaths could be over-reported and the number of heroin deaths could be under-reported.

The draft report also shows a 3-percent spike in the number of people who died with more than one drug in their system. That figure includes deaths that were caused by drugs and deaths where drugs were found.

“These drugs may have also been mixed with illicit drugs and or alcohol,” the interim report states.

The Legislature in 2018 took steps to combat addiction to prescription painkillers, which can lead to people abusing street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Lawmakers approved a measure requiring physicians to check a statewide database before prescribing certain controlled substances. The law also imposed a three-day limit on prescriptions for treatment of acute pain. Physicians can prescribe up to seven-day supplies of controlled substances, if deemed medically necessary.

The changes in law, however, didn’t go into effect until after the first six months of 2018.