Give Gov. Rick Scott credit for making a real effort to address Florida’s opioid crisis.
Last month, he proposed spending $50 million to combat opioid abuse. Included was a plan to limit physicians in most cases from prescribing more than three days of powerful and addictive pain-killers like OxyContin and oxycodone to their patients. The latter idea has now been formalized in HB 21, a bill filed by state Rep Jim Boyd.
The bill ups the stakes in Florida’s battle against drug abuse and is a prudent step toward keeping a new user who is legitimately prescribed the medicine from becoming hooked on powerful narcotics. Together, the twin proposals of legislation coupled with treatment are more than a whack-a-mole approach.
That’s the good news. The real problem comes in making sure that even this doesn’t make a bad problem worse.
Addicts already have proven time again that when one door is bolted shut, they will relentlessly search for another source to feed their drug need. They aren’t deterred by the threat of jail, and decades of trying to choke off the supply of illegal drugs on the street hasn’t worked.
That’s the awful reality lawmakers face as they try to fight a crisis that so far has been beyond their ability to adequately address with legislation. Someone with severe long-term pain will ignore the warnings and prohibitions. If they can’t get the prescribed drugs over the counter, they’ll start looking on the street.
There is a ready supply of black-market painkillers, and if that’s too much trouble many addicts turn to heroin. The legal narcotics are basically synthesized heroin in many cases, and street heroin is cheap and easy to find.
It also kills people.
Florida found that out when it shut down the so-called “pill mills” in 2010. The crackdown closed the storefront clinics that illegally dispensed opioids to basically anyone who walked through the door. By 2014, though, medical examiners reported that people were dying of heroin overdoses in record levels and problem continues today.
The Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale reported there were 580 drug-related deaths last year in Broward County alone, including 10 on one day.
The addicted cross all social and economic lines, but they are united by a common theme: the addiction is more powerful than the penalty, even when that penalty is potential death by overdose. That’s where treatment comes in, and I think it likely that much more than the $50 million proposed by Scott will be needed.
I reported a series a few years ago for the Tampa Tribune about former National Football League players who used painkillers in sometimes staggering amounts to deal with long-term effects from their injuries.
One former player told me, “Am I an addict? Yes,” he said. “All my medications are pretty much illegal.”
Others talked of swallowing medication like Vicodin by the handfuls.
Of course, most people aren’t facing daily battles with overwhelming long-term pain from a career spent in athletic combat with 300-pound men, but all things are relative. People self-treat bad backs, sore shoulders, and wrenched necks. Before they know it, they have a problem that can’t be solved with legislation.
If Boyd’s proposal becomes law, which seems likely, Tallahassee will call it a victory. Maybe lawmakers will even do a little celebrating, which will be fine – at least until the sun comes up and it’s time to face the next battle in a war that never seems to end.