As of 2017, there are an estimated 20.5 million residents in the Sunshine State, which is a 9 percent increase since the 2010 census. As the population increases, substance abuse struggles are also on the rise. Overdose deaths involving drugs or alcohol rose 11 percent across the state. Among people seeking addiction treatment in Florida, 31 percent reported alcohol as their main substance of abuse; 18 percent reported heroin; 17 percent reported marijuana; 16 percent reported other opioid drugs; 5 percent reported methamphetamine; 4 percent reported crack cocaine; 3 percent reported other types of cocaine; and 2 percent reported benzodiazepine abuse. There were a total of 87,840 admissions for treatment in the 2016–2017 fiscal year.
Counties with the Highest Rates of Drug or Alcohol Problems
While the whole state of Florida, like the rest of the country, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, specific areas are in a worse position than others. For example, Duvall County reportedly has the worst rate of fentanyl overdose deaths out of any Florida county, with the city of Jacksonville suffering the most, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Report (FDLE). Pinellas County has the highest rate of arrests for drug possession. Between 2010 and 2015, there were more than 31,000 arrests for drugs, and the larger Hillsborough County reported around 21,000.
Most Abused Drugs in Florida
Alcohol: Among people ages 18 and older in Florida, alcohol is the leading cause of drug-related death. Although it is legal for people ages 21 and older to drink, it is also one of the most widely abused drugs. Florida Medical Examiners (FME) reported that alcohol was the cause of death in 19 percent of fatalities in the state in the first half of 2017. By the end of 2017, there were 2,594 deaths with ethyl alcohol found in the blood; in 409 of those incidents, alcohol was considered the cause of death.The Florida Uniform Crime Reports found that, in the first six months of 2017, there were 16,765 arrests across the state for breaking driving under the influence (DUI) laws, predominantly due to being drunk. Fortunately, this is a slight decrease from the same time period in 2016 when there were 17,339 DUI arrests.
Opioids:The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that, as of 2016, there are 115 opioid overdose deaths in the United States every day. This is about 13.3 overdose deaths for every 100,000 people living in the U.S. In Florida, however, the rate is 14.4 deaths for every 100,000 people.Across the Sunshine State in 2016, there were 2,798 opioid overdose deaths, predominantly due to synthetic opioids. Of those opioid overdose deaths, 1,566 were due to synthetic opioids like heroin and fentanyl. The 2016 rate is much higher than 2013, in which 200 overdose deaths reportedly involved synthetic opioids. In 2017, there were even more reported opioid-involved deaths at 3,037 people, which was a 20 percent increase from 2016, or 505 more individuals.By 2017, the governor of Florida declared that the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic was a public health emergency for the state. In 2013, the predominant form of opioid abuse involved prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone. Florida doctors that year wrote 69.6 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people, which was around 13.6 million prescriptions total. Between 2013 and 2015, as prescription regulations tightened and doctors began to focus on preventing addiction to narcotics, the state experienced a 7.3 percent decline in narcotic painkiller prescriptions.As prescriptions for opioid painkillers decline, more people are turning to heroin, which is increasingly laced with fentanyl. In some cases, fentanyl is sold instead of heroin. This has contributed to a spike in overdose deaths involving that synthetic narcotic, which is between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine. There were 1,023 deaths in Florida in 2016 attributed to a heroin overdose.Morphine was reported in 1,032 deaths. Dangerous fentanyl analogues like carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, were found in 875 deaths; and fentanyl was found in 825 deaths. FME noted that heroin is rapidly metabolized into morphine, so some of the morphine overdoses may have started as heroin overdoses.As heroin abuse rises, more people are contracting viral infections like HIV and hepatitis C from sharing needles. In the United States in 2015, there were 39,513 new reported cases of HIV, and 9.1 percent of those were attributed to injection drug use (IDU). Of the new reported HIV cases across the country, about 4,849 individuals were in Florida. About 5.8 percent were men, and 10 percent were women.Similarly, in 2015 there were 181,871 reported cases of chronic hepatitis C in the country and 33,900 acute cases, of which 64.2 percent were caused by IDU. That year in Florida, 22,981 cases of chronic hepatitis C and 210 cases of acute hepatitis C were reported, of which about 20 percent were due to IDU.
Marijuana: Medical marijuana is legal in Florida, although it is very restricted. The state has no laws allowing recreational marijuana. In fact, it has some of the most serious drug penalties in the nation for people who abuse this substance for a nonmedical reason.Florida adolescents abused marijuana at slightly higher rates from 2016 to 2017.FME found that cannabinoids were present in 1,124 fatalities in the first half of 2017, which was a 4.9 percent increase from 2016.
Prescription drugs: Opioid painkiller abuse is a severe problem both in Florida and across the U.S., but other prescription drugs like benzodiazepines or medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs are also major problems. In Florida in 2017, FME reported that 3,353 people died with one or more prescription drugs in their body. This could represent high rates of substance abuse, accidental overdose, or a coincidence. However, many of those prescription drugs had been mixed with other intoxicating substances like alcohol, which increases the risk of death.Benzodiazepines were some of the most frequently encountered prescription drugs involved in death, with 2,506 fatalities reportedly having a benzodiazepine drug present. Of those, 912 were specifically alprazolam, most often prescribed as the brand name Xanax.
Synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones: These drugs are types of chemicals found in the larger group, new psychoactive substances (NPS). Famous types of synthetic cannabinoids are Spice and K2, which are chemically similar to marijuana but manufactured in clandestine drug labs without quality control. Similarly, synthetic cathinones like bath salts and flakka are also manufactured in clandestine labs, then brought into the United States; cathinones are chemically similar to cocaine.Both types of drugs are new chemicals with little to no testing. Because they are made to be abused, they are very potent, and there is no quality control to determine what a moderate dose may be. If you abuse these drugs, you are more likely to overdose than to get high.While abuse of these drugs steeply declined in the past few years, any abuse of synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids is very dangerous. The CDC warned in April 2018 that life-threatening bleeding had been associated with use of synthetic cannabinoids. Types of bleeding including coughing up blood, severe bloody nose, bleeding gums, and blood in the urine. It is likely the bleeding stemmed from a filler agent called brodifacoum, a lethal rat poison that was mixed into the drugs.Reported cases came from Illinois, but because NPS come into the U.S. through Florida and much of the country’s NPS abuse is in the state, Florida officials are extremely worried about their residents. In 2017, FME reported that synthetic cannabinoids were present in 20 people who died, 18 of whom died because of the drug. There were 18 more people who died after abusing synthetic cathinones than the previous year, of which 11 deaths were caused by those drugs.
Cocaine, meth, and other stimulants: An intelligence brief from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2017 found that Colombian cocaine production had reached the highest ever observed levels the previous year, which suggested that stimulant abuse would increase across the nation. Florida is one of the states particularly vulnerable to a rise in cocaine abuse because the drug is smuggled through the state’s numerous ocean ports.Indeed, a report from the Florida Medical Examiners in 2018 found that stimulant-related overdose deaths across the state had been rising since 2013. In 2017, FME reported that there were 1,584 deaths involving cocaine. Instances of cocaine increased 36 percent, and deaths caused by cocaine increased 59 percent. Part of the reason cocaine was so deadly was because the stimulant was more often found combined with opioids like heroin or fentanyl than alone.Meth is also a growing problem in Florida, leading to more overdose deaths than previous years. FME found that meth caused 213 deaths in 2017, with an overall 72 percent increase in the drug’s presence in overdoses that year. Overdose deaths involving meth have been increasing in Florida since 2011 when clandestine super-laboratories in Mexico began making the drug and shipping it north into the United States. FME reports that overdose deaths involving meth have gone up more steeply since 2015. In the first half of 2017, there were 414 instances of methamphetamine-involved death, with meth being the cause of death in 51 percent of those cases.There were more admissions to drug treatment programs in which cocaine was the primary drug of abuse. In the 2016–2017 fiscal year, there were 5,286 state-funded treatment admissions involving cocaine or crack cocaine, accounting for 7 percent of all publicly funded treatment. Crack cocaine was reported as 61 percent of those admissions; 59 percent of cocaine treatment admissions were people 35 and older.
For several years, Florida’s middle and high school students have abused alcohol and cigarettes less and less, which mirrors the overall U.S. decline in this age group. There were historically low rates of these types of substance abuse among adolescents in Florida in 2017. That year, about 1 in every 13 adolescents reported vaping at least once in the past month. Vaping is like smoking but involves the use of an electronic pen or cigarette to vaporize an oil containing an intoxicating chemical like nicotine. This reportedly was three times higher than the rate of adolescent cigarette abuse, but it was also a decline of about 1.2 percent since the previous year, indicating that education and prevention programs reporting the dangers of vaping nicotine or other drugs are beginning to make an impact.
Alcohol abuse has declined as well. Past-month alcohol abuse declined 16.7 percent among adolescents from 2006 to 2018, according to the Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey (FYSAS) for 2018. Similarly, binge drinking during that time period declined 10 percent. However, high-risk drinking is still too common among Florida’s young people. In fact, 1 out of 10 high school students reported binge drinking, and 1 out of 7 reported passing out from drinking too much. Across all grades, 36.5 percent of students reported ever trying alcohol, and 15.3 percent reported abusing alcohol at least once in the past month. Among high schoolers, 20.9 percent reported drinking five or more drinks, which meets the criteria for binge drinking, on the days they drank alcohol.
Most abuse of illicit drugs is reportedly declining. In 2006, about 9.7 percent of Florida’s students abused illicit drugs, not including marijuana; by 2018, that had declined to 5.8 percent. The FYSAS reported that about 1.8 percent of teenagers abused inhalants and about 0.1 percent abused heroin.
In the past two years, marijuana abuse has also declined, from 11.2 percent in 2016 to 10.9 percent in 2018. However, adolescent marijuana abuse in the Sunshine State has a mixed history of increasing and decreasing. The drug remains popular among teenagers.
Among adolescents, 14.3 percent reported being in a vehicle with a drunk driver at least once in their lives; 4.4 percent reported driving after drinking alcohol; 22.9 percent reported they were in a car with someone who was high on marijuana; and 9.5 percent reported driving after abusing marijuana.
The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) reported that, in Florida in 2014, there were about 56,000 children between the ages of 12 and 17 who needed treatment for illicit drug abuse in the past year but did not receive that help.
Treatment in Florida Does Not Have to Be Voluntary
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states in their Principles on Effective Treatment that going into treatment does not have to be voluntary to work. In Florida, a law called the Marchman Act permits people struggling with addiction to be admitted for assessment of substance abuse or treated for this problem against their will in some specific ways. For instance, a law enforcement officer can have a person put in protective custody if they show that they need treatment while in public or behave in a way that attracts the officer’s attention. Additionally, if a person fears for their loved one’s safety due to drug or alcohol abuse, and the loved one is so intoxicated that they cannot recognize the need for treatment, then that person may be admitted to treatment against their will if loved ones petition the court for involuntary treatment.
After a person has been involuntarily admitted for treatment, only a licensed addiction specialist in a hospital, detox facility, or other treatment program can release that person without a court order. If the person was admitted due to an emergency, applicants (the people who petitioned for involuntary treatment) must be notified. To be released before the course of treatment is complete, an individual or their family must petition the court for a writ of habeas corpus, which questions the legal standing upon which they were involuntarily admitted. This legal step can occur any time during treatment and without warning.
The Florida law becomes very specific about who may be involuntarily admitted and when, but the Marchman Act is an important step in treating the state’s serious problem with drugs or alcohol. By allowing some limited involuntary admissions, concerned individuals can get their loved ones the help they need in certain situations.