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Heroin ODs Spike After Pill Mill Crackdown

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

Bill Gettle has been on the brink of death from a heroin overdose more than once.

Three years ago he overdosed and had to be revived with a reversal drug called Narcan.

“I didn’t really care,” Gettle said. “I was using amounts I knew I’d seen other people die from. In my early 20s, I lost more than one friend to overdose.”

Gettle is a 44-year-old general contractor in Orlando, and working through a 12-step program now. He’s had two years of sobriety, minus a few slips off the wagon.

“If I had continued use like that, the OD that was gonna kill me was probably just around the corner,” he said. “Because, I mean, I have used to the point where I’ve been close to death more than once.”

Five years ago, Florida was labeled the prescription drug capital of the U.S. Seven people died every day from overdoses – until the Florida Legislature started a crackdown.

The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program made opiate pills more expensive on the street, and left many addicts with a choice: Get treatment, or find a substitute.

Credit Florida Department of Law Enforcement
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

But there’s a downside in the drop in prescription drug use. Overdoses and deaths from heroin are on the rise in Florida. In 2010, 48 people died from heroin overdoses.

By 2013, that number had quadrupled.

That year, the number of heroin overdoses and deaths in Orange and Osceola Counties was 26. The final number for 2014 is expected to double that. Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings in a recent public service announcement that heroin is killing Central Florida residents.

“Heroin overdoses have been reported all over Orange County,” Demings said. “With more than half of the deaths taking place on the east side. Overdoses are up more than 50 percent.”

Experts say the recent spike in heroin use is a result of Florida’s efforts to combat prescription opiate abuse.

“Heroin and opioids of course just act identically in the body,” said Jacinta Gau, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. Gau said heroin acts just like morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone.

“It just sends your brain into a tail spin,” she said.

In 2010, 98 of the country’s top 100 oxycodone prescribing physicians were in Florida. Huge reforms were put in place, including a prescription drug-tracking database, while law enforcement went after the so-called pill mills.

Credit Florida Department of Law Enforcement
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Prescription opioid deaths dropped. Addicts had a choice: get clean or find a substitute.

Kelly Steele oversees drug court in Orange County, a diversion program. Most of her cases involve cocaine and marijuana, but she said heroin cases are rising. In 2011, less than five percent of people in drug court said heroin was their drug of choice. Now heroin’s the drug of choice for 15 percent, she said.

“People who are used to getting that really intense high are still now looking for something to offset their old habit in the pill realm,” Steele said. “Pills are on the decline for use. And heroin’s on the increase. So it seems like an offsetting.”

Bill Gettle thinks the flood of prescription pills helped create a lot of opiate addicts -- and those addicts have gone from pills to heroin. Gettle, who used heroin daily for seven years in his early 20s, managed to kick the habit for more than a decade. That is until he broke a couple ribs and a friend gave him some oxycodone for the pain.

“One thing led to another, I shot those Oxies,” Gettle said. “Within about a week after that, I say I conveniently ran across someone, but I was seeking out crowds where I could probably find me some heroin. And then I was back off to the races.”

Gettle says he was an addict before he ever did drugs, and he knows he’ll be an addict for the rest of his life. The question is whether he’s using, or in recovery.

It’s a choice, he says, between heaven and hell, or life and death.

Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFE in Orlando. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.