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Lethal Supply And Demand: Heroin Overdoses Spike In Pill Mill Crackdown's Wake

A Florida bill would allow needle exchange programs to operate across the state.
A Florida bill would allow needle exchange programs to operate across the state.

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.

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- 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, 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,” Gettle said. “Because, I mean, I have used to the point where I’ve been close to death more than once.”

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.

In 2013, the number of heroin overdoses and deaths in Orange and Osceola Counties was 26.  The final number for 2014 is expected to double that.

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After dipping to a low in 2010, heroin deaths quadrupled by 2013.[/caption]



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Officials expect Orange County to double the number of heroin deaths from 2013 to 2014.[/caption]


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 is researching heroin abuse. She says heroin acts just like morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone.

“It just sends your brain into a tail spin,” Gau 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 so-called pill mills.

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 heroin cases are rising.

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Kelly Steele manages Orange County's drug court.[/caption]

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.

“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 used heroin daily for seven years in his early 20s.

He managed to kick the habit for more than a decade – 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. It’s also a choice between life and death.