Officials Tackling Regional Heroin Epidemic



Social workers in Southwest Florida want more resources to treat drug addicts while law enforcement officials want the better fight narcotics from even entering the country. At a roundtable held by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, calls for better prevention and treatment were voiced, and while officials claim progress in combating heroin use in the past year, finding a solution for growing use of the drug in this region remains elusive. “This is an issue that affects everyone, rich and poor,” Buchanan said.

State Attorney Ed Brodsky said one of the greatest needs at a federal level is for improved border control. “We need to do more to prevent this getting into the United States or into the community,” he said. Those comments were echoed by Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, who said police here are trying to stop dealers from getting drugs into the region. She said efforts need to focus on lower-level drugs like marijuana as well, which she said serves as a gateway to harder drugs like heroin.

But at the same time, Public Defender Larry Eger said drug abuse isn’t simply a matter of law enforcement. “I have been arguing this is a public health issue,” Eger said. Differing with police, he said the community would be better off with all narcotics legalized and regulated, and that some social programs like drug court would be more effectively if addicts weren’t being treated like criminals and getting screened out of programs.

Manatee County has seen a decline from 21 working mills down to 9, according to Drug Free Manatee Executive Director Sharon Kramer. But most at the roundtable acknowledged a side effect of curbing pill mills in the region has been a rise in heroin abuse as addicts turned to less reputable sources for a high.

Kevin DiLallo, CEO for Manatee Memorial Hospital, said they has been progress over the last year. While the emergency room at his institution was at one point seeing as many as five drug overdose cases a day, there is now less than one overdose a day on average. The hospital over the course of 2015 treated a total of 269 drug overdoses, and DiLallo credited a successful methadone clinic facility as one tool helping people break a deadly habit. Paul Sutton, executive director of the Sarasota Coalition on Substance Abuse, said programs developed at the Salvation Army have seen tremendous success by providing treatment beds where police can take addicts instead of sending them into the hospital and then to jail.

Buchanan in the U.S. House is co-sponsoring the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to address the problem, and he anticipates similar legislation to be filed in the Senate as soon as this week. He expects a bipartisan solution to pass out of Congress this year. “We can see at the expense of life, heroin is the most addictive drug in the world,” he said.

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