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The opioid epidemic continues to plague communities in North Central Florida

John Moore
Getty Images

According to Ocala police, investigations have shown the drugs responsible for many of the overdose deaths enter the U.S. from Mexico.

The opioid crisis continues to take lives across North Central Florida, and local organizations are trying to find ways to combat it.

Since 2018, the Ocala Police Department has responded to over 1,000 overdose incidents, which have resulted in the deaths of 139 Ocala residents.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Bryce Brown
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Ocala police spokesman Jeff Walczak said the department’s investigations have shown the drugs responsible for many of the overdose deaths enter the U.S. from Mexico.

In January 2018, the Heroin/Opioid Amnesty program was launched by the Ocala Police Department to encourage drug addicts to seek help.

Under the program, anyone seeking assistance from the police will not be arrested or added to any criminal activity lists within the police department as long as they surrender their drugs and paraphernalia. They will be admitted to a licensed treatment facility free of charge.

The program has grown from 48 participants in 2018 to 112 participants in 2021.

“Our goal is to help addicts get the treatment they need because we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis,” Walczak said.

Paul Bloom, the public information director for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said county law enforcement is not only combating the opioid crisis by finding drugs on the street and arresting drug dealers but also by educating youth about the dangers of opioids in schools.

Bloom said people addicted to painkillers often begin using heroin to fill in the gap when they cannot get more painkillers.

“They’re trying to feed that addiction, and it’s a very, very dangerous game of Russian roulette,” he said. “Eventually it catches up to you, and you lose, but it’s not a matter of if they’re going to overdose — it’s just when.”

Bloom said deputies carry the prescription drug, Narcan, to treat emergency narcotic overdoses since they occur almost daily.

The incidence of opioid-related deaths doubled from 22 in 2019 to 44 in 2020, and Bloom said the spike in cases can partially be attributed to the pandemic, similarly to the rise in domestic abuse cases that was seen at the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Bryce Brown
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The loss of a loved one or the loss of a job could have been stressors that facilitated the spike, but regardless of the pandemic, the problem continues to grow, he said.

The Marion County Heroin/Opioid Task Force was launched in 2017 to reduce the number of opioid deaths by uniting resources across the county. Bloom said intelligence units compile information about suspected criminals and directed patrol units then use the information to track down these individuals.

Bloom also said the county has to remain flexible and adapt to the constantly changing landscape of drug use.

“I’m sure if we took all the heroin off the streets, all the fentanyl, then there will be another drug that pops up in its place,” he said.

Marina Sachs, 28, began a podcast, “Sober Baby,” where they chart their journey battling alcoholism and drug use and speak to other people going through similar situations, including opioid addicts.

In addition to hosting episodes where they speak about opioid addictions, Sachs partnered with The Opioid Spoon Project, an artist-led national nonprofit where they aim to raise awareness of the issue and destigmatize people struggling with addiction.

“I see my role in terms of the opioid epidemic being: How can I help? How can I support? How can I be of service as someone who is in allyship with those folks?” they said.

Sachs said the opioid crisis has only continued to worsen since the pandemic began, and yet it is still not receiving the attention it deserves.

“It is unbelievable how blatantly and harmfully drug addiction is ignored in this country,” they said.

Sachs said it is not a matter of the government saving the country; in fact, Sachs said the people they have seen become sober and stay sober did it in spite of the government rather than becausof the government.

“The government does not care about people who are struggling with addiction, who are single moms, who are low-income folks of color, trans and queer folks,” they said. “The government doesn’t care because the government makes a ton of money on people who have an addiction.”

Sachs said the issue really boils down to holding the global pharmaceutical industry and privatized rehabilitation centers accountable, which are the corporations profiting off of addicts. Government policy only goes as far as it is able to be agreed upon by lobbyists, they said. They said they believe policing is one of the major factors perpetuating the cycle of harm for addicts.

“Incarcerating and punishing addicts has never worked and will never work,” they said. “It is devastating to know that we live in a world that’s punishing people for something that is harming them.”

Bloom said any entity that distributes drugs carries great responsibility, and pharmacies need to put the right amount of drugs in the right hands for the right reasons.

“I think we’ve seen in our society there’s been a reckless issuing of opioids,” he said. “It shows a carelessness [for] human life.”

Casey Willey is the director and founder of Out of Harm’s Reach, which is an organization based in Gainesville devoted to harm reduction education to reduce the number of deaths and injuries due to illicit drug use. Willey created this organization almost a full year ago after losing a partner to a fentanyl overdose.

The organization has provided Narcan training to restaurants and bars in downtown Gainesville, where they teach individuals how to spot an overdose and take action. It has also partnered with organizations like the Department of Health for tabling events across the state. It will be partnering with Live Free 999, a nonprofit created by deceased rapper Juice WRLD, in Daytona from Feb. 26-27.

Out of Harm’s Reach also offers fentanyl test strips so people can check if their drugs are laced with the narcotic.

Willey said they believe drug users are an underserved population across north central Florida, and there needs to be more awareness so these people can remain safe.

“Every overdose death is a policy failure,” they said.