By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Drug-addiction experts in February pitched Miami-Dade County leaders a plan to tackle the alarming rise in deaths related to overdoses from heroin and fentanyl, an even more powerful opiate that has flooded the streets of South Florida.
With a budget of about a quarter million dollars a year, Nova Southeastern University epidemiologist James Hall and Miami-based drug-addiction interventionist John Schmidt recently told FloridaBulldog.org, Miami-Dade could begin to mimic the success of private organizations and government agencies in Broward County that worked together to clamp down on flakka, a synthetic stimulant that also has been causing an unusually high number of overdoses and deaths in recent years.
“That strategy has been very effective,” Hall said. “It basically eliminated flakka from the streets of Fort Lauderdale. It was the result of a united community effort crossing many domains at the local, state and federal level.”
But nearly three months after making their presentation to the county commission, Schmidt and Hall claim Miami-Dade officials have not moved quickly enough to curb the local opiate epidemic.
“Bottom line is we would like to see this slow down and get people help,” Schmidt said. “Things are just not moving quickly with the mayor’s administration. I care that an average of two people per day are overdosing.”
Hall said opiate overdoses have led to an “epidemic of death in Miami-Dade.” However, he is not aware of any steps the county is taking to combat the problem since raising the issue at the commission meeting on Feb. 17.
“One thing about the flakka community team in Broward is that people left meetings and did something,” Hall said. “They didn’t have to spend six months preparing a plan of action.”
Michael Hernandez, spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, denied the county is not taking the increase in opiate deaths seriously enough.
“The Office of the Mayor is aggressively working toward addressing this issue,” Hernandez said, noting Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Russell Benford is still figuring out what the county’s role will be. “The Deputy Mayor has informed Mr. Schmidt that he would research the topic and provide Mayor Gimenez with a recommended plan of action.”
Heroin, Fentanyl deaths way up in Miami-Dade
According to a report prepared by Hall, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner recorded 80 heroin-related deaths in 2015 compared to 42 the previous year. Fentanyl-related deaths had a more than four-fold increase from 22 in 2014 to 94 last year. There have been more than 400 non-fatal prescription opioid poisoning overdose hospital admissions in Miami-Dade annually over the past five years and private-treatment center admissions for heroin increased 77 percent between 2014 and 2015, the report states.
In Miami-Dade’s northern neighbor, Hall co-chaired the Flakka Community Action Team, an advisory council sponsored by Broward County government and the United Way of Broward County’s Commission on Substance Abuse. Hall said the action team brought together key organizations and experts who have led numerous efforts to counter the outbreak of flakka, which is the street name for alpha-PVP. The groups involved include staff of Broward’s sheriff’s office, medical examiner, state attorney, public defender, private hospitals, treatment centers and churches.
“We have made very significant progress in reducing the flakka problem in Broward,” Hall said. “We went from 12 emergency room visits in the summer of 2015 down to two in December 2015. The last death related to flakka was on Dec. 11.”
Hall also claimed Broward’s action team influenced the Chinese government to ban the manufacture and sale of Alpha-PVP and other synthetic drugs made in clandestine labs in the Communist country.
Hall and Schmidt have suggested that Miami-Dade establish its own opiate epidemic advisory council in conjunction with a large community organization. The coalition would need roughly $80,000 a year for staffing and meeting expenses, according to a budget proposed by Hall and Schmidt.
Schmidt is also lobbying county officials to contract with Marvin’s Corner, a drug-addiction services company he founded, to implement an outreach program for family members and significant others of opiate addicts to educate them on how to spot the sign and symptoms of an overdose, as well as promoting awareness of Florida’s 911 Good Samaritan law — which allows a person to contact emergency responders without fear of being arrested on a drug-related crime.
Marvin’s Corner would also assist opiate addicts in finding treatment options and resources, including placing them in local detox facilities, 28-day residential treatment and outpatient programs and long-term residential programs, Schmidt said. He’s asking for roughly $179,000 in county funds to staff and operate the assistance program.
Schmidt told FloridaBulldog.org that he has the support of several county commissioners and the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community. “We definitely think this is a public health safety issue,” Miami Coalition CEO Emilio Vento told county commissioners on Feb. 17. “We hope you provide the funding. Every day we don’t take action, there are more people dying in our community. We can prevent it through a coordination of services.”
Schmidt claims Benford doesn’t seem interested enough in combating Miami-Dade’s opiate problem. “I think Benford could be more active,” Schmidt said. “He’s talked about holding town hall meetings. I don’t think town halls have ever cured addiction.”
Hernandez refuted Schmidt’s accusation. The mayoral spokesman said that between Feb. 24 and March 29 Benford spoke with several Broward officials who were part of the flakka response team, including Broward’s assistant county administrator Alphonso Jefferson Jr. and Heather Davidson, a prevention specialist for the United Way of Broward County. “The purpose of the conversations was to learn how Broward County worked through a similar issue,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said Benford also discussed establishing the advisory council through the Miami-Dade County Addiction Services Board with the board’s chairman David Kahn, as well as establishing an opioid focus group with Lilian Rivera, administrator for the Miami-Dade office of the Florida Department of Health.
As for contracting with Marvin’s Corner, Hernandez said Schmidt needs to apply for funding through the county’s community-based organization process.