Opioid-Related Deaths Skyrocket in Florida

By Paul Gaita 11/27/17

The state experienced more than 1,600 fentanyl-related deaths in 2016, according to a new report.

pills falling out of a prescription bottle

An annual report from Florida's medical examiners found that prescription drugs—and in particular, opioids like fentanyl—contributed to a 22% statewide increase in drug-related deaths in 2016.

The report, "Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons by Florida Medical Examiners," found that across the state, opioid-related deaths increased by 35% since 2015. Heroin-related deaths jumped 30% during the same timeframe.

Cases where fentanyl—a synthetic opioid that has proven to have devastating effects in cities and states across the country—was present rose by a staggering 97% in 2016, accounting for more than 1,600 deaths. However, non-opioids were also accountable for a large number of deaths, with alcohol found in more than 5,000 decedents, while cocaine outpaced even fentanyl, morphine and fentanyl analogs as the leading cause of death.

To compile the report, the Florida Medical Examiners' Commission (MEC) reviewed data on deaths reported in the state during 2016 by its Bureau of Vital Statistics. According to its findings, 27,383 deaths were examined by Florida medical examiners during that timeframe, and toxicology results found that drugs were present at the time of death in 11,910 cases. Of that number, medical examiners attempted to determine whether drugs were the cause of death or simply present at the time of death.

As the report noted, drugs were listed as cause of death only when a review of all the evidence, including an autopsy and toxicology report, determined that the drug was the primary cause of death. However, the vast majority of decedents were reported to have more than one drug in their system at the time of death.

The report found that overall, drug-related deaths rose 22% from 2015 to 2016, and opioids detected after death rose 35% in the same timeframe. Prescription drugs—which the report defines as benzodiazepines, zolpidem and all opioids except for heroin and fentanyl—continued to be both the cause of death and present at time of death, accounting for 61% of all cases in which drugs were found in the system of a decedent.

Surprising, the drug that caused the most deaths was cocaine, which claimed 1,769 lives in 2016, followed by benzodiazepines (including alprazolam), fentanyl, morphine, fentanyl analogs, alcohol, oxycodone, methadone and methamphetamines. However, of the five drugs most commonly found in decedents, ethyl alcohol led the list, followed by benzodiazepines, cocaine, cannabinoids and morphine.

The drug that saw the greatest increases in terms of both occurrence and cause of death was fentanyl, which saw an 80% increase in occurrence and 97% increase in cause of death. All told, fentanyl was responsible for 1,644 deaths in 2016.

And while statistics were lower for heroin, the drug still saw increases in both occurrence (31%) and cause of death (30%) that were significantly higher than numbers posted a decade prior. In Florida's "Panhandle," between 2002 and 2013, eight people died from heroin use, but between 2013 and 2016, there were 74 deaths attributed to heroin.

Dustin Perry, staff director of the non-profit, Lakeview Center, attributed the rise for both drugs to prescription drug use. "Where these drugs may have been easy to get years ago, they aren't now," said Perry. "So these people who have chronic pain have to figure out what to do with it, and sometimes it's easier to find the illicit drugs."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.