2018-03-01 / Spotlight News

Southwest Florida tackles opioid epidemic

By Dayna Harpster

Chief of Investigations Jim Williams was one of three panelists from the Collier County Sheriff’s Department at a recent presentation on the opioid crisis. Chief of Investigations Jim Williams was one of three panelists from the Collier County Sheriff’s Department at a recent presentation on the opioid crisis. Although Collier County may not lead the state in the number of opioid overdoses, its sheriff’s department is likely one of the more aggressive in meeting the problem head-on.

Department members recently presented a status report on its response to the drug crisis at a meeting of the Naples Press Club. Captain of Homeland Security and Organized Crime for the Collier County Sheriff’s Department Tom Storrar said he has worked in law enforcement since the ’70s. “And we never saw it (drug use and overdose) in those days the way we see it today,” he said. “Since we shut down the pill mills, the illegal market has picked up, and that becomes our problem.”

In fact, according to the most recent report of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Medical Examiners Commission, published in November 2017, 34 deaths in Naples and 81 deaths in Fort Myers in 2016 were blamed on morphine (a category that includes the similar synthetic, heroin) and 28 in Naples and 70 in Fort Myers on fentanyl or fentanyl analogs – which are derivatives with slightly different formulas. “This is the scary part,” Storrar said. “With synthetic opioids, every time we think we have our arms around the chemical formula, they change it. And then it takes the legislature time to catch up.”

The numbers of overdose deaths don’t begin to tell the whole story. Far more people overdose without dying and therefore strain the resources of law enforcement and health care, along with causing innumerable social problems.

“I’ve seen people using $6,000 a day in heroin,” Storrar said. As the shady clinics for people who have become addicted to prescription opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone are shuttered, people have turned to the more readily available street drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.

According to Storrar, Collier is the first county in Florida to use over¬≠dose mapping to pinpoint where overdoses in the county occur, whether or not they were fatal and whether or not the drug naloxone was used and if it worked. Naloxone can reverse the common fatal symptom of opioid overdose, which occurs when the drug stops the person’s breathing.

“The incidents are plotted on a map. And it shows us where the hot spots are,” Storrar said. “And then it goes into a national database.” Just this year, Collier joined this system, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program run by the federal government. To be a part of the grant-based system, a county’s problem must be a significant center of drug production, trafficking or manufacturing that is expected to be harmful to its citizens, and the county must be applying resources of its own to the issue.

All Collier County EMT rigs are equipped with naloxone and responders know how to administer it, Storrar said. The same is true of Collier sheriff’s detectives.

“I’m after the person who’s dealing. The person who’s importing,” Storrar said. If someone calls and asks for help with an opioid addiction, the department works on pairing the person with a mental health counselor and is partnering with the David Lawrence Center to get such people into detox.

“Law enforcement can’t solve this problem alone,” he said. “We need more mental health beds, more counseling, more examina¬≠tion of the cause and effect of letting this thing go on.” Due to lack of resources, “the jail is the largest mental health facility in Collier County.”

Accompanying Storrar at the presentation were Chief of Investigations Jim Williams and undercover officer Lt. John Poling.

The Lee County Sheriff’s office offers extensive training regarding heroin/fentanyl/opioid use and abuse, said spokesman Gary Levine, and the department is looking into the use of naloxone.

In the past several months, Lee County officers have made several high- profile busts. Illegal drugs and more than $1 million from drug trafficking were seized at one residence in December; two pounds of fentanyl was seized at another residence in January. Fentanyl is so strong that as little as .5 milligrams could kill a person.

“The Lee County Sheriff’s Office, like other law enforcement agencies around the nation, is deeply concerned about the opioid epidemic and the number of overdoses that we come upon,” Levine said in an email.

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