The disconnect between Florida public officials and the drug epidemic

It’s always interesting to browse the company Twitter feed and see tweets made by our state’s public officials regarding anything related to the drug epidemic – I am mainly speaking about Florida legislators on both the state and federal level. Not all of them, but many of them.

The drug epidemic has been a hot, buzzworthy topic for many years. Unlike many other buzzworthy topics in politics, there isn’t much polarization from the general population in the ultimate goal of the drug epidemic – we want to see less people succumbing to substance addiction and substance misuse disorder; we want to minimize the number of drug overdoses. In 2019, there were over 43,000 reported drug overdoses in the state of Florida, in which a little over 5,000 ended in death. Almost 60% of those overdoses were experienced by adults between the ages of 25 – 44 years old.

Many overdose deaths are unintentional, as in non-suicidal. Especially in today’s world of complex illicit drugs, many people that overdose on substances like fentanyl are not even aware fentanyl is added in whatever drug they purchase and use. The illicit supply of drugs has become more dangerous over the years because of the introduction of potent fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances, as well as counterfeit drugs, in the illegal drug market.

In case you are unclear of how legislators and other publicly elected officials obtain their positions, they are democratically elected by the people in their districts. Many times, these are average Joe’s and Jane’s – in other words, it is not required for anyone to be an expert at ANYTHING to hold public office. You just have to find a way to get more votes than your opponents on election day. This brief explanation prefaces this: THE AVERAGE ELECTED OFFICIAL IN FLORIDA IS NOT AN EXPERT IN SOLVING THE DRUG EPIDEMIC! There are very few that even understand the details of the drug epidemic, but I don’t expect every politician or government official to know everything about it immediately. They do have a job of helping the people in their communities, and illegal drugs have become a nuisance in many of our Florida communities. It’s no longer just the large urban areas of Orlando, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and South Florida that are affected by the drug epidemic. Smaller counties like Brevard and Pasco Counties, which have no large cities in them, have drug overdose death tolls comparable to the big city counties in our state. Our elected officials should be researching this topic and listening to public safety and health experts for possible solutions to curb overdose numbers. Instead, it seems these legislators love to talk about the “drug epidemic” and “fentanyl” when it can score points with their voters, but the result of their actions have had virtually no effect on the rising drug overdose numbers that appear to be growing out of control in Florida. The data is clear. Whatever they are doing is NOT enough and it is NOT working.

The ecosystem of the drug epidemic involves multiple parties: our public officials, public safety agencies (usually the law enforcement and public health agencies), and the citizens of the community. We all have our part in combating this societal problem that notched another ~90,000 kills in America last year. There should be better communication between public officials and public safety agency leaders about this problem. Legislators and county/municipal officials are typically responsible for approving agency budgets to tackle such urgent issues. This is a problem the police cannot handle alone. The drugs they are encountering aren’t just heroin anymore. These days it’s heroin mixed with carfentanil, U-4770, and 4-ANPP. These new drug signatures are so complex that they make it difficult to rapidly collect drug intelligence about the drugs and track their distribution patterns around Florida and the rest of the U.S. Many political officials still call this the “drug war”, and in playing along with that moniker, it’s a war our law enforcement and public safety agencies are losing because they do not have the technology to put up a fight. They are still using outdated police drug test kits and methods to collect drug intelligence and their data is always months behind the present time because of it.

Law enforcement sheriffs and chiefs and their narcotics commanders and crime lab drug analysts have made it clear to me over the last 6 years that police officers need better technology to deal with illicit drugs. My hope is that legislators and other public officials take out the time to better understand the drug epidemic from both a public health and public safety perspective – as in speaking with public health experts to hear suggestions on societal programs that would help and strategizing with public safety experts to explore the realm of innovative technology that can improve their efforts in keeping drugs out of our local communities. I also hope that more law enforcement leaders ultimately use their positions to reach out to public officials and lobby for more funding for new solutions to combat the drug epidemic.

We need to eliminate the disconnect between public officials, law enforcement, and the local community in understanding the factors that enhance the magnitude of the drug epidemic, so that we can begin to address the issue with solutions that will actually work. As opposed to focusing on treating the symptoms, it would be a lot more productive to target the sources of the problem with better drug interdiction, effective education about drugs, and treatment for those that suffer from mental health disorders that contribute to addiction and substance misuse. Our society can no longer afford to wait for the problem to fix itself, because it will not. Things are getting worse. It is time to stop being reactive with ineffective responses to illicit drugs and start being proactive with new ideas to help communities that are suffering.


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