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Florida’s Opioid Epidemic | Overdose Deaths on the Rise

February 7, 2018

Last year, there were 199,964 deaths in the state of Florida, as recorded by their Bureau of Vital Statistics. Of those nearly two-hundred-thousand deaths, 27,383 of them were investigated by state medical examiners. Of those nearly twenty-eight-thousand deaths, 11,910 of them showed the presence of illicit drugs in their toxicology reports.

Now, that doesn’t mean drug abuse was the cause of these deaths. In fact, for the 2016 annual report of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, (FMEC), “Florida’s medical examiners were asked to distinguish between the drugs determined to be the cause of death and those drugs that were present in the body at the time of death.” The results are shocking – especially when compared to the figures for 2015, which in itself was a horrifying year for Florida in the way of drug overdoses. Note that for the comparisons below, figures are being compared to those of 2015.

Last Year’s Figures

The number of drug-related deaths in Florida went up by 22 percent. Deaths caused particularly by heroin increased by thirty percent. However, it’s likely that this figure is higher. As quoted from the FMEC report, “Since heroin is rapidly metabolized to morphine, this may lead to a substantial over-reporting of morphine-related deaths as well as significant under-reporting of heroin-related deaths.”

That being said, deaths caused by morphine increased by 49 percent. This data combined tells us that heroin abuse is still rampant in Florida, and only getting worse. More evidence for this comes from the fact that deaths caused by fentanyl increased by an overwhelming 97 percent. The majority of fentanyl available on the street is laced into either heroin or a prescription pill.

This brings us to the terrible world of prescription drugs. According to the FMEC report, “Prescription drugs continued to be found more often than illicit drugs, both as the cause of death and present at death.” In fact, prescription drugs accounted for over 60 percent of all drug occurrences investigated by the medical examiners.

You’re in for yet another surprise, perhaps. As atrociously high as all of these above-mentioned figures are, the individual drug that ended the most Floridian lives last year is cocaine. It killed 1,769 residents of the state. That’s nearly five a day. However, bear in mind that each different prescription drug subset is counted as an individual drug. According to the FMEC report, prescription drugs are broken down into four subsets: “benzodiazepines, carisoprodol/meprobamate, zolpidem, and all opioids excluding heroin and fentanyl analogs.”

Here’s the real shocker. Overall, prescription drugs killed more Florida residents last year than cocaine and heroin combined. We’re facing a heroin crisis, yes, but we’re really facing a drug crisis, especially with so many deaths and overdoses associated with prescription drugs.

Prescription Drugs are Killers

About half of all opioid-caused deaths in the entire US are caused by prescription pill overdose. The epidemic is particularly bad in South Florida, a place, according to the Sun Sentinel, “…where police sometimes race between overdose victims and morgues struggle to keep up with the bodies.”

The most intriguing aspect of Florida’s pill problem is that over the course of the previous several years, deaths from pill overdoses were on the decline. Last year was different, and it’s likely that the heroin boom is to blame. It’s a two-way street; people become addicted to pills and then turn to heroin later on, and when heroin is unavailable, it’s back to the pills.

Three of the top most abused prescription pills in Florida last year are OxyContin, Xanax, and Klonopin. OxyContin is an opioid painkiller. Xanax and Klonopin are benzodiazepines, which as a class of drugs is primarily prescribed for panic attacks, anxiety, seizures, etc. Let’s take a closer look at these three killer prescription pills.

OxyContin

Much like using the word ‘Kleenex’ for a tissue, the word ‘OxyContin’ is actually a brand name, and is really oxycodone, a relatively strong opioid painkiller. When abused, oxycodone can produce similar effects as heroin. OxyContin is by far the most abused brand of opioid medication, but others exist and are abused regularly, such as codeine, hydrocodone and methadone.  Deaths in Florida from all of these drugs increased last year over the previous year.

Oxycodone is extremely addictive, as much so as heroin itself. Side effects include extreme drowsiness, falling asleep helplessly, delayed reaction time, and constipation. Long-term effects are scarier, and include gastrointestinal issues, persistent vomiting, spasms, convulsions, and in extreme cases the shutting down of the respiratory system.

Xanax

This too is a brand name, for the drug alprazolam. It is a relatively impotent tranquilizer, used primarily for treating anxiety disorders. Xanax consistently ranks among the most prescribed medications in the entire country. In turn, it is one of the most widely abused prescription drugs in the entire country. Among all benzodiazepines, Xanax is the most prescribed and abused.

In February of 2014, the US National Library of Medicine published an article that concerns benzodiazepine addiction and its possible treatment with something called flumazenil. Although promising in nature and content, we wanted to draw attention to a particular quote from toward the beginning of the article:

Benzodiazepine use for as little as 3 to 6 weeks, even while adhering to therapeutic doses, is associated with the development of physical dependence, with between 15–44% of chronic benzodiazepine users experiencing protracted moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms upon cessation including emergent anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

In other words, addiction can form in less than a month of use, even if not taking higher than normal doses. Plus, somewhere around a third of benzodiazepine users actually experience side effects that benzodiazepines are supposed to cure. Side effects of Xanax include extreme drowsiness, dizziness, lack of coordination, dry mouth, hallucinations, skin rashes, and in more extreme cases, suicidal thoughts or actions. Long-term effects can include amnesia, dementia, damaged brain cells, and even coma. An overdose on Xanax entails low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, impaired motor functions, and several other central nervous system complications.

Klonopin

One of the least recognized drugs of abuse is Klonopin, which of course is a brand name. The drug is clonazepam, and is used primarily to treat seizures, panic disorder, and sometimes akathisia. Like Xanax, it too is a benzodiazepine tranquilizer, but Klonopin is stronger in this regard. Xanax is the most widely abused benzodiazepine, and Klonopin is a close second.

Everything you just read about the dangers, side effects, and long-term effects of Xanax applies also to Klonopin. One major difference is the withdrawal. If you are addicted to a drug, no matter which, it is dangerous to stop using abruptly. With Klonopin, if an addict stops abruptly, it can become extremely uncomfortable, if not fatal.

Dean Dauphinais is a contributor to the Huffington Post, but he is also a victim of the power of Klonopin. Remember, before we share Dean’s story, that an enormous amount of people become addicted to prescription pills unwillingly. It’s the nature of the drug(s) that gets people addicted sometimes.

In the late 2000s, Dean was prescribed Klonopin by his doctor in order to help with his anxiety and trouble sleeping. His son was suffering from both depression and addiction, and times were tough. At first the pills were working, keeping Dean calm and allowing him some good sleep. However, after a couple of years he began to feel depressed himself, and decided to see a therapist.

Dean’s therapist, upon discovering he was taking a total of 2.5mg of Klonopin a day, told him that he was “grossly overmedicated.” So, as most would likely do, Dean decided not long after that Klonopin was no longer for him. He flushed the remaining pills and quit, on the spot. Let Dean take it from here:

“The next morning, I felt like I was dying. I had chills, my head hurt, and my body was shaking uncontrollably. I couldn’t even get out of bed. Naïvely, I thought I had come down with a bad case of the flu. But I eventually wondered about the possible connection between my symptoms and my having stopped taking Klonopin.

“I had my wife call my psychiatrist to ask him if the two things could be related. He said they were, and that I never should’ve stopped taking my Klonopin cold turkey. It turns out that when you stop taking benzodiazepines suddenly, you risk a boatload of horrible symptoms, including anxiety, depression, dizziness, headaches, irritability, muscle spasms, nausea, heart palpitations, seizures, and tremors.”

Doctor Responsibility

The most important part of Dean’s story, which could be anyone’s story, is that his doctor never once warned him of the dangers of Klonopin, or of the dangers of stopping taking it. As you might expect, there are stringent rules and guidelines in place to ensure that doctors are completely honest and informative with their patients. Part of these rules and guidelines includes a responsibility to prescribe medicines. If prescribing, doctors should always inform/warn patients about any and all risks associated with the medicine. This is not always the case.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an investigative article last year called How the Doctors Wrote the Script for the Epidemic. While a powerful title, it shows bias. We do not firmly believe doctors are solely responsible for the drug epidemic, but some pieces of evidence are mentionable. The article focused on 7 states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

In those seven states, between 2011 and 2015, according to the article, “608 doctors have [sic] been disciplined by state medical boards for overprescribing narcotics.” During that same time block, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a different article, nationwide numbers of doctors disciplined were outrageously high. “From 2011 to 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration accepted the surrender of 3,679 prescribing licenses nationwide, and revoked another 99…” according to the article.

There certainly is an over-prescription problem in the medical world. Whether it’s for kickbacks, due to poor decision making, or out of a genuine attempt to help someone, doctors need to use much more caution when prescribing drugs that are widely abused, especially opioids. In fact, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in August of 2016 sent a letter to every single doctor in America pleading with them to exercise the utmost caution when prescribing opioids.

Patient Responsibility

It needs to be said that aside from in cases of accidental addiction, (when a patient takes medicine as prescribed yet develops a dependency), there needs to be some patient responsibility as well as doctor responsibility. You know when you’re abusing something. If you don’t feel as though you need your medicine anymore, but you still take it to feel something, that’s abuse. If you take one or two more than you should, to feel some kind of high, that’s abuse.

Patients prescribed drugs are also responsible for disposing of unused medicine safely. A large percentage of the pills that our nation’s children abuse comes from the medicine cabinet of someone they know. For the FDA-approved method of disposing unused drugs, click here.

In Conclusion

Florida, especially the southern areas, is being ravaged by drug overdoses. Cocaine is the top killer, unfortunately likely due to the coastal location of the state. A close second is prescription pills. Cocaine is not being prescribed by doctors, and so the control of it falls to government and/or law enforcement. This is not the case with legal pills. It becomes the responsibility of everyone involved, from big pharma to the doctor to the patient to the patient’s family, to prevent abuse.

If you or someone you know is abusing any kind of drug, please seek help for yourself or for him or her today. We at Sunshine Shores Recovery are here to help. Our caring and compassionate team is here to answer the call 24/7. Don’t let drugs or alcohol keep you at bay.

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