South Florida is in the grips of an opioid epidemic. Opioids are compounds related to opium, which bind to receptors linked to the brain’s reward center. Heroin is an opioid, as are prescription painkillers like morphine and oxycodone. Since 1999, the rate of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled in the United States. Heroin overdoses have reached such a peak that law enforcement officers regularly carry Naloxone treatments on them – a medication that reverses the effects of heroin. Here are the facts on the latest heroin trend in South Florida.

The Numbers on South Florida’s Heroin Outbreak

In the last year, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties reported heroin overdoses at rates that haven’t occurred in the area since the prescription opioid boom in 2010. The Palm Beach County medical examiner’s office reported 10 overdose deaths in a single day in March 2017. Palm Beach County recorded at least 525 opioid overdose deaths in 2016. Broward County had similar numbers, with 590 drug deaths in 2016 – 90% of which were related to heroin and other opioids.

The numbers come down to an average of one death every two hours due to heroin overdose in South Florida. Because of the sudden increase in drug-related deaths, law enforcement officers are cracking down on heroin and its opioid relatives. They’ve discovered that much of the heroin on the streets of South Florida is laced with carfentanil, a cheap additive that’s about 10,000 more potent than morphine. This extremely potent additive in synthetic heroin has likely contributed to the influx of overdose deaths.

Some heroin users underestimate the strength of carfentanil and take it in the same amount as typical heroin. Others aren’t aware the heroin they bought contains this powerful drug. According to the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office, carfentanil and its less-potent relative, fentanyl, contributed to more than 220 deaths in 2016 as additives in heroin. These two drugs are still present on South Florida’s streets in 2017.

The Fight Against Heroin in South Florida

Law enforcement officials in South Florida are requesting more government funding to fight the heroin overdose crisis in the area. They have declared the epidemic a “public health emergency,” similar to the 2010 emergency that Gov. Rick Scott declared in the face of overwhelming prescription opioid death rates. Focus is on reducing the amount of heroin in the streets, as well as spreading awareness of the dangers of heroin laced with carfentanil. Officials are also working to eliminate a likely contributor to the heroin epidemic – prescription opioid addiction.

The current heroin crisis in South Florida does not only affect “junkies.” It has spread into areas of Florida that previously reported low rates of drug use. Researchers attribute this change largely to the rise in prescription opioid addictions throughout the state. Many people who become addicted to prescription drugs do not do so on purpose. They take the drug for a legitimate health reason but then end up addicted as the drug changes the brain’s reward center. As it gets harder to fulfill a prescription addiction, these individuals turn to heroin – a drug that’s cheaper and easier to obtain in Miami.

Law enforcement crackdowns on pill mills and drug dealers in Florida may help control the escalating rate of heroin overdose deaths. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Health is pushing to increase the availability of naloxone to potentially save the lives of those experiencing overdose. Florida will receive around $54 million in federal funds for drug treatment programs and efforts in the next two years. Unfortunately, this money comes too late for the hundreds who have already lost their lives to heroin addiction in South Florida.