Florida Gov. Rick Scott was not overreacting earlier this month when he declared a state of emergency to combat opioid abuse in the state. If anything, the move was overdue.
Scott signed an executive order May 5 that frees up $27 million in federal funds for prevention, treatment and recovery services for opioid addiction. Although the money is much-needed, consider it merely a down-payment on what it will cost to save lives. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 nearly 3,900 people died across the state as a result of opioid abuse (nationally, the number was 52,404 — more than were killed in vehicle crashes and gun-related homicides).
Fentanyl has emerged as the most deadly substance. Last year it killed more Floridians — more than 700 — than any other single drug. Fentanyl has become a scourge in South Florida, but it has hit Central Florida hard enough. In 2016, Volusia County recorded 27 fatal overdoses involving fentanyl, four times more than it had just two years earlier. By comparison, as The News-Journal’s Michael Finch II notes, there were 17 murders last year in Volusia and Flagler counties combined.
Law enforcement and health officials are struggling to catch up to the burgeoning crisis, one borne, ironically, by the state’s crackdown on its previous drug problem — the proliferation of “pill mills” that illegally dispensed prescription medication like it was Skittles. These outlaw clinics were shut down. But as Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood explained to The News-Journal’s Finch, “The problem is when we did that, you have all these folks who have already formed an addiction to these pills who then found another outlet, which was heroin.” And heroin is often laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Clearly, the solution is to break the cycle of addiction, regardless of what the drug of choice might be. Because if it’s no longer fentanyl this year, it will be something else next year — and the year after. The governor’s executive order directly assists that strategy.
Unfortunately, the Legislature has chosen to go a different direction, focusing on the law enforcement side. At the end of the recently concluded session, lawmakers passed a bill that added fentanyl to the list of drug felonies that receive a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison, with the possibility of much more time. This makes sense when applied to dealers. But the legislation also would sweep up the addicts who are caught with relatively small amounts of opioids — as little as 4 grams. A “safety valve” amendment that would have given judges more sentencing leeway on possession cases was stripped out of the bill at the last minute.
If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Scott, it will turn some non-violent users into career felons, putting them behind bars when what they really need is treatment. There is a mountain of evidence from the decades-long war on drugs that this prison-first approach does not work as intended.
Jason Pye, director of Public Policy and Legislative Affairs for FreedomWorks, and Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy for the James Madison Institute, wrote earlier this month at FloridaPolitics.com that in the decade after Florida first adopted mandatory minimums for opioid trafficking in 1999, the state’s cocaine-related death rate increased 68 percent, and remained higher in 2015 than it was in 1999. In 2015, the heroin-related death death rate was nearly twice the 1999 rate. Florida’s overall drug-induced death rate has increased nearly 150 percent since mandatory minimums were implemented.
Drug-enforcement policy needs to distinguish between, on the one side, recreational users and addicts, and on the other the professional criminals. Reducing the demand side through treatment and prevention will impact the supply side more effectively than increased incarceration for possession, and without the long-term damage mass imprisonment inflicts on communities. Be tough, but also be smart.