Drug overdoses caused the death of 7,394 people in Florida in 2020, which was 2,143 more than in 2019, according to a recent report of QuoteWizard by LendingTree LLC.

In Volusia County, there were 138 deaths by drug overdose compared to 842 non-fatal overdoses in 2020. So far this year, there have been 18 deaths attributed to drug overdose with 263 non-fatal overdoses. Fatal drug overdose deaths are actually down 67% from the same time last year with a 22% reduction in overdoses in general, according to SMA Healthcare.

“While the number of instances of opioid overdose continues to be unacceptable, we have seen a significant decrease in fatalities due to opioid overdose,” said Rhonda Harvey, CEO of SMA Healthcare. “We are very happy to see this shift, and believe the implementation of the Bridge Program, which places a recovery peer in each of the five local hospital emergency departments, along with the availability and wide distribution of NARCAN (to reverse opioid action in a person that has overdosed) to be major reasons for the local trend.

“On another note, the medication assisted treatment program works specifically with those diagnosed with an opioid use disorder and their treatment includes the use of buprenorphine in their treatment plan. We think it is profound that zero participants in the program have incurred a fatal overdose. Many who enrolled did so after an overdose.

The pandemic seems to have made the drug abuse problem worse.

“We heard the call and we responded,” Ms. Harvey said. “For our staff that are working in this particular area, they are energized because they are truly seeing the results of their work. We believe the efforts that have been put into this issue are reaping staggering benefits.”

Individual cities will vary as to their drug related statistics. The City of Daytona Beach provided information to show that in 2019 there were 42 drug overdose deaths compared to 95 in 2020.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood agreed having NARCAN readily available has been critical to saving lives, but that the drug crisis is far from over.

“You are dealing with a three-legged stool. One of those legs is absolutely law enforcement. We need the resources to do interdiction and go after these dealers and in particular charge them with manslaughter or homicide when the stuff they are selling causes a death,” the sheriff said. “Then we need treatment, which I think the State of Florida is near the bottom when it comes to treatment funding for addiction. And then the third leg of that stool is education.

“The people in our communities aren’t criminals,” he said. “They have an addiction problem. The user has to be treated as if they had a disease. The seller knows you have a disease. They don’t care whether you die or not. They are going to continue to sell that poison that kills people.”

Sheriff Chitwood said the newest drug of choice is to mix meth with Fentanyl with all ages and economic statuses of people using drugs. He added the addiction often starts with an injury that goes from pills to heroin to Fentanyl.

Kelly Murphy, 41, admits to being an addict. She knows more than 20 people who have died due to drug overdose. She is separated from her husband, Kenny, who is homeless and also an addict. She said her husband is “losing his mind using meth, which is really popular and very easy to get and which has replaced cocaine in a way because it does give you that same energy.”

Telling her story was important to her. She said all the people she has interacted with on the street also have “stories you would not believe. Everybody has this trauma or this tragic thing that has happened, something that they are trying to get away from.

“I went through the toughest time of my life with my girls by myself like a single mom. I raised my daughters for 21 straight years and never touched any illegal substance,” she said. “I set the standard to make sure my daughters had the same life they would have had if they had two parents in the home.”

Then she had a stroke in 2016.

“After that I got really depressed. I didn’t know anything was really affected until a year later. I became very hard. It changed me. I was sleeping all day long. It made certain things in my brain acceptable that were not before. (Cocaine) serves as a temporary antidepressant and sends that same chemical to your brain that makes you happy. I can’t believe I let it happen but my mind just wasn’t as strong.

“It bothers me when people look at addicts in a different way,” Ms. Murphy said. “Judgment is a huge contributor. So much of the addiction continues on because of the way it is handled, the way it is looked at. I don’t steal from people. We’re not all criminals.”

She stressed it is not a matter of choosing drugs over family, but rather “do I want to use today or do I want to commit suicide. Can I get through today? I can only get through if I have something in my system.”

She feels interventions are too negatively based with no real emphasis on mental health. Being made to feel guilty makes people want to use more, she said. She gave numerous examples of being treated rudely by professionals and on the flip side, agreed some people were incapable of recognizing they even need help due to their severe mental illness. She said going to jail for trespassing or disorderly conduct isn’t the answer.

“They don’t understand that person at the corner just lost everything,” Ms. Murphy said. “I taught (my girls) not to judge. I don’t care if they’ve got a million dollars in the bank, cars and five degrees. If they don’t help people, I have not done my job. Stop pointing the finger and just help.”

She stressed you can’t give up drugs cold turkey and some addiction starts from legally prescribed pain pills stemming from legitimate accidents.

Ms. Murphy added, “I know that there is hope because I’m on a mission to make sure this message gets delivered and that we find people who really truly care to dial into the actual problem and not the symptom of the problem. If you don’t and (just) put them in rehab, it’s going to be another failure that weighs on them. Mental health has to be addressed first. If not, we’re putting a Band-Aid on something, giving a pain pill, but not the antibiotic, so your infection’s coming back.”

Her daughter, Montana, thinking about her parents and other addicts said “I can see that it is something with their mental health. They are not right. They need help.”

For more information on how to get help for substance abuse visit smahealthcare.org or call the 24-hour hotline at (800) 539-4228.

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