The crisis of heroin and other opioids that is pounding Orlando, every part of Florida and every part of America might not be any easier to solve than it is to blame, as panelists from Orange County’s Heroin Task Force blamed doctors, middle schoolers and dealers.
It’s a crisis that is causing three to five overdoses a day in Orange County, and killing 100 people a day nationwide, surpassing gunshot wounds and car crashes for the first time in history, the panelists said.
For timeshare mogul David Siegel it’s a personal crisis, as he and his wife Jackie lost their 18-year-old daughter Victoria to a heroin overdose in 2015. Orange County Health and Public Safety Director Dr. George Ralls, its a broad crisis touching every neighborhood, straining treatment assets, and crying out for innovative efforts. For Orlando Health ER doctor and medical toxicologist Josef Thundiyil, its a day-to-day crisis, as he sees overdose victims parade through the emergency room. And for Orange County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Carlos Espinosa, commander of the narcotics unit, its a crisis of supply, where heroin is “very easy” to get, he said.
The quartet of members of the Orange County Heroin Task Force that was set up two years ago by Mayor Teresa Jacobs spoke before the Tiger Bay Club of Central Flordia Tuesday, with Sheriff Jerry Demings as co-chair. The panelists agreed on the magnitude of the crisis, but not entirely on the necessary responses.
Siegel, the Westgate Resorts president who has become a nationally-outspoken critic of all illegal drugs including marijuana since his daughter died, pushed his call to random drug test middle-school students in public schools, saying too many heroin addicts like his daughter started out smoking marijuana a few years earlier and then stepped the stones.
“Since our children are starting to experiment with marijuana when they are 14, 15, it only makes sense to stop them then, before they go further. Every heroin addict didn’t start with heroin. They started with marijuana,” Siegel said.
“This new marijuana law is the beginning to the end,” he said. “The fear of getting caught is the best deterrent. Peer pressure…. ‘My school is testing. My parents are testing. I’m afraid I’ll get caught,'” Siegel said
But moments before Siegel made his appeal, Thundiyil made the case for why so many older heroin addicts are showing up, and dying, and it’s not because they smoked pot as kids.
“It’s a sad story how we got here. It started many times with well-intentioned physicians trying to mediate pain and suffering. If you talk to heroin addicts now, about three-fourths say they got their start through prescription drugs,” Thundiyil said. “Reversing that trend and educating physicians, educating citizens, that even as little as three days of narcotics, oral, prescribed, medical narcotics, is enough to start addition and create drug-seeking behavior.
“Drug-seeking behavior is the tendency to then go looking for more drugs. If you can’t find it in the medical system, the place you might go next is to look for heroin,” he added.
“My focus for the last two years has been to end the drug epidemic. Not to build timeshares, not to sell real estate, but to save lives,” Siegel said.
“From a law enforcement point of view, I can tell you we’re attacking the supply side of this. The demand side, that’s another animal,” Espinosa said.
“It’s a problem that has affected the entire county…. It used to be that we had pockets of Orange County that weren’t affected by this stuff. Heroin affects the entire county, all sectors, including our tourist areas,” he added.