Much national and international focus the past year has centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, yet there remains another ongoing crisis that hits close to home — the opioid epidemic.
Local stakeholders addressed the issue at length last month during a virtual town hall organized by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Addiction Prevention (ASAP) — a coalition made up of community members and committee partners collaborating to fight drug misuse in the area.
The March 2 event titled, “Virtual Opioid Town Hall: Use Only As Directed,” featured an in-depth panel discussion with perspectives from recovering addicts, medical professionals, lawmakers, law enforcement, educators and others.
Among the takeaways from the 90-minute Zoom meeting — more efforts are needed to resolve the opioid issue nationwide, and in Pasco, as a result of damage done over the years plus the confluence of coronavirus and mental health issues.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and many others.
New Port Richey-based attorney Jim Magazine has witnessed the problem up close, as part of a national consortium of opioid litigators handling lawsuits on behalf of cities, counties and states against drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies.
The Law Offices of Lucas & Magazine managing partner warned the addiction crisis seems to have worsened since COVID-19 touched down: “With the rise of the coronavirus, the opioid epidemic, at least from my perspective, has gone up exponentially. With people staying at home depressed, and the cocktails between opioids and benzodiazepine, people are OD’ing at an alarming rate that I see.”
He also cautioned the next frontier of opioid issues could arise with the introduction of prescription fentanyl transdermal skin patches, designed to alleviate severe pain around the clock.
“I think that fentanyl patches are becoming a norm,” Magazine said, adding the federal government needs to address that issue.
“I mean, they’re now being prescribed and I’m seeing overdose cases on a regular basis for people that have fibromyalgia,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world that would indicate that a drug 100 times stronger than morphine should be prescribed to an individual that has nonspecific muscle pain. But that’s happening all over the country and nothing’s happening about it, and people are dying every single day.”
Magazine went on to detail how the opioid crisis got out of hand over the years, especially locally. He singled out a standalone national chain pharmacy in New Port Richey once distributed 2.3 million oxycontin pills in 2010 “without any oversight, whatsoever.”
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor similarly underscored the gravity of the opioid crisis, during the virtual event.
“Sadly we have seen a huge spike in overdoses throughout the nation in recent years, and it is an epidemic,” said Bilirakis, who represents the 12th congressional district in Florida. “The strain of the pandemic also has exacerbated throughout the pandemic, particularly with the mental health crisis, and its’s not going to go away anytime soon. We’ve got to do everything we can.”
In the way of solutions, Bilirakis acknowledged “there’s so much more to do,” even following some $6 billion in federal spending earmarked for opioid addiction and mental health programs as part of the 2018 Omnibus bill, geared to advance treatment and recovery initiatives, improve prevention programs, and bolster efforts to fight the importation of illicit synthetic drugs.
“It’s going to take a lot,” Bilirakis said of fixing the opioid crisis. “Just one piece of legislation is not going to fix it.”
But, Bilirakis mentioned at least one step in the right direction is the implementation of national standards and rating systems for sober living home operations — plus increasing their accessibility overall. He explained “a big problem” of South Florida area treatment centers offering referral kickbacks, for instance.
“We have to have accountability,” the congressman said. “These residential treatment centers, people need to know, they need to be rated, because nobody really knows. You get first-hand, second-hand recommendations, and you spend thousands and thousands of dollars, and that’s another issue. …But you want to make sure it’s a good treatment center, so I’m going to continue to work on that.”
As another example of the far-reaching nature of the opioid problem, Bilirakis pointed out how it impacts any and all types of families and backgrounds, whether rich, poor or middle class. “It doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “It affects most families and we have to do everything we can.”
Gulf High School student Maddie Horn is a member of Safe Teens Against Drugs (STAND).
She personally understands how substance abuse and opioid addiction impacts families.
The Pasco ASAP Volunteer of the Year “grew up without a father because he chose drugs over my brother and I,” she said.
Horn simultaneously has witnessed her great-aunt abuse prescribed pain medication, be it taking multiple doses at once or not waiting the proper length of time between doses.
“It doesn’t just affect you, it affects the people around you,” said Horn. “You’re not only affecting yourself now, but you’re affecting yourself years down the road. I just don’t want that to happen to my cousins or anybody else in my family, so that’s why I’m so passionate (about drug prevention).”
When queried about drug and addiction trends in local schools, Horn stated vaping and marijuana are “a very big issue right now.”
“I see a lot of times that our bathrooms are closed, because that’s where students tend to go when they do (drugs) at school,” she said. “I’ve had friends I’ve had to stop talking to (because of drugs).”
Recovering addicts share experiences
The discussion also featured perspectives of individuals actively undergoing drug recovery, including Madeira Beach’s Nicole Harris.
Harris has battled opiate addiction off and on for about 13 years.
Some of her issues stem from being prescribed a host of pain pills when she was 24 years old, despite having a clear MRI showing no major issues.
A wakeup call came in January 2020 when she was admitted to the hospital with endocarditis — a severe blood infection related to prior IV drug use — which also claimed the life of her husband.
While hospitalized, Harris linked up with a social worker through the BayCare health system. She was steered to programs like 12-step addiction recovery and peer support groups. “I knew I had to change everything,” Harris said.
And, her life has changed for the better since entering treatment 14 months ago.
Harris has a driver’s license, is eligible for rent assistance, and her newfound peer groups all but provide “a family that I’ve never had before,” she said.
Meanwhile, through the 12-step program, Harris acquired life skills and discovered more about her inner self and feelings. “So many people go through issues and it just really showed me how to deal with all that, things I’ve been carrying forever that had nothing to do with me,” she said.
Harris otherwise expressed confidence with myriad recovery opportunities, noting it simply takes some encouragement and willpower to get the help needed to fight addiction. In other words, barriers to treatment aren’t as weighty as many might think.
“All the barriers I experienced were self-built. I could come up with a reason or an excuse for everything,” Harris said. “Once I fully surrendered to the program and to my addiction, I just started taking suggestions and life got a lot better.”
New Port Richey resident Cherrice Peters-Tanksley was similarly long reluctant to seek treatment amid feelings of shame, embarrassment and fear of being judged.
The mother of four boys has faced opioid addiction for 30 years after all, starting with using heroin at just 11 years old.
But, Peters-Tanksley now has been in recovery for almost a year, thanks to BayCare treatment programs, plus faith-based ministry outreach.
She’s simultaneously picked up her life — working in a hospital with plans to study human and culture services, “so it is possible to live a good life with recovery,” she said.
Peters-Tanksley, too, strongly asserted “there’s no excuse” for other addicts not to seek much-needed help.
“There’s nothing that stops us from doing what we have to do but us,” Peters-Tanksley said. “The same way we were in those streets getting what (drugs) we needed to get, we’re going to do whatever’s necessary to get the help that we need to get. I was my own barrier to get the resources from BayCare, but once I saw I could trust people and talk to people, it was a no-judgment zone, then there were no barriers to be created, because I would do whatever was necessary for me to get treatment I needed to get.”
She added: “I just want everybody to be encouraged, to know that it can be done, because I come from such a heavy background.”
Harris and Peters-Tanksley also shared stories of medical professionals overprescribing pain medications.
Harris recalled being given upwards of 450 pills a month, ranging from Oxycontin to Xanax and others. “The overprescribing is crazy,” she said. “I feel like they get money or something from these manufacturers for writing these medications…”
Peters-Tanksley added she could get 300 Dilaudid and 300 Xanax at a clip by a doctor. She, too admitted to doctor shopping and previously selling excess pills on the side.
“I just want the doctors to know people don’t need all that medication,” she said. “There’s no way in the world I needed all that. Nobody is in that much pain. You’re basically overdosing slowly.”
Local agencies making strides
Locally, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and BayCare Behavioral Health have taken charge together to combat the opioid crisis in the community, through a partnership with the law enforcement agency’s innovative Behavioral Health Intervention Team (BHIT).
The specialized unit formed in September 2019 and is comprised of 12 detectives, an intelligence analyst, two supervisors and chain of command, plus a network of co-responding BayCare social workers.
BHIT members like Det. Michael Sudler assist vulnerable residents facing mental health and substance use disorders, which are oftentimes co-occurring, officials say.
Sudler, along with a social worker, continually strives to build a rapport and continued relationship with troubled individuals and families within 24 to 48 hours of an overdose incident.
Sudler and others make regular wellness visitations, distributing Narcan kits, providing opioid-related education, and referring them to community resources and outreach opportunities like area detox and rehab centers; programming is made possible through grants and partnerships with the Florida Department of Health.
“A lot of the times, these individuals don’t have people in their own lives who are motivating or encouraging or even referring them to resources in the community where they could get help,” Sudler explained during the town hall. “I find that I’ve been the most successful…by trying to be a friend to these individuals and continually reminding them that options are out there and empowering them to take advantage of them on their own.”
Sudler acknowledged there does remain “the cop” stigma when he encounters individuals through the BHIT program, likely due to previous unpleasant law enforcement encounters.
So for him and other detectives, having a social worker present for these door-to-door interactions helps “legitimize my role and efforts to encourage someone’s continued engagement in services.” The presence, too, “changes the tone and feeling” of the conversation, Sudler said, “to help people understand that it’s not a typical law enforcement interaction and it’s not going to result in a mugshot.”
Published April 14, 2021