While the number of arrests for illegally possessing pain pills and heroin in the Florida Keys has been low in recent years, it is steadily on the rise.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Lt. James Norman says that in 2015, there were 15 arrests for possession of heroin or opioids. In 2016, there were 33 arrests. So far this year, there have been 16.
“Those are rough numbers,” he said, adding they are a combination of both painkillers and heroin.
“We don’t get a ton of heroin cases, and that’s a good thing, but that’s not to say it’s not here,” said Marathon Police Chief Don Hiller, adding the Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit is “aggressive.”
“We don’t sit around and let things fester. We target things,” he said, like the case of two Big Coppit Key men who were arrested in late March with 95 grams of heroin packaged and ready for sale in addition to 46 grams of spice-laced marijuana.
Sheriff Rick Ramsay said heroin “phased out for a long time but is back in the circuit,” coming from Mexico.
“There’s no question about it,” State Attorney Dennis Ward said. “And the genesis of this whole epidemic stems from the pill mills. Any time we have a drug overdose, it’s significant in our small community.”
Ramsay also blames the problem on pill mills, clinics in the late 2000s where doctors overprescribed painkillers in exchange for thousands of dollars each week and in some cases went to prison for it.
South Florida got on the map as one of the painkiller capitals of the U.S. in the late 2000s with pill mills. One investigation into a Palm Beach pain clinic sent 11 doctors, including one from Key Largo, and 19 others to prison after a number of patients died from overdoses.
A string of clinics in South Florida run by brothers Jeff and Christopher George drew people from as far as Tennessee and Kentucky who could simply walk into the clinics and pay cash for hundreds of pills like Dilaudid or Xanax. Fifty people died as a result of the George brothers’ operation, which landed them both in prison.
Law enforcement started shutting down clinics across the state starting in 2010.
“When they shut them down, those poor people moved to another drug, one not prescribed by a doctor,” Ramsay said.
That drug was heroin.
The penalty for possessing four grams or more of heroin is a mandatory three years in prison with a $50,000 fine, although the state Senate and House of Representatives went back and forth this week on a bill that would allow judges to break from the three-year sentence. The bill was approved by the Senate but not the House, leaving it in limbo as the session ends.
Emergency medical responders in the Florida Keys say they haven’t seen a high number of heroin overdoses or use, but calls related to opioid pain pills have gone up.
Key West Emergency Medical Services chief Eddy Perez Jr. said the city sees roughly five calls a week in response to people with opioid-related emergencies.
“It could be a person suffering from withdrawal symptoms or it could be a medication request, a person saying ‘I’m in pain and the doctor won’t give me more medicine,’ ” Perez said, adding other times people are mid-seizure or are unconscious.
While most seizures end in a trip to the hospital, opioid antidote Narcan is used in the event of an overdose, which causes respiratory distress. Narcan is injected into the outer thigh or can be administered in an IV and acts almost immediately. There is also an over-the-counter nasal spray version that can take longer, Perez said.
In Key West, Narcan has been used 31 times since Jan. 1. Key Largo Fire Chief Don Bock said Narcan was used about 20 times in 2016 with six of those being listed as heroin-related. In Marathon, Narcan is used once or twice a week, according to Fire Chief John Johnson.
Norman said Sheriff’s Office deputies are not equipped with Narcan but could be soon. “We are trying to follow some of the trends of other agencies,” he said.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219