It took much longer than it should have, but the Florida Legislature finally passed, and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law, tougher penalties aimed at combating Florida’s opioid epidemic. It’s a start, but only addresses part of the problem.
The legislation, officially signed last month, increases penalties for dealers caught selling synthetic drugs like fentanyl, a cheap and potent painkiller largely responsible for the surge in overdoses in Florida over the last few years. Under the new law, drug dealers could face murder charges if their customers overdose and die using fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that South Florida drug dealers have mixed into heroin.
Starting this fall, judges will be required to sentence people possessing 4 grams of fentanyl to a minimum of three years in prison. Individuals with 14 grams face 15 years in prison, while those with 28 grams will get a minimum of 25 years in prison.
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has been pushing hard for such legislation to be passed. Not long before Gov. Scott was ceremoniously signing the bill into law here in Palm Beach County this week, McKinlay received the Florida Association of Counties’ Marlene Young Presidential Advocacy Award, which is presented to a county elected official who has shown extraordinary leadership. FAC President Kathy Bryant said the recognition was in large part due to McKinlay’s tireless push to not only create tougher penalties for opioids, but to get more and better funding from the state and federal governments.
McKinlay was among the first public officials in the state to lobby Gov. Scott for action, and in April helped persuade the county commission to adopt an initial $3 million plan to address the crisis. In May, after four years of drastic increases in opioid-related deaths, Gov. Scott finally declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. The new law allows Florida to tap more than $54 million in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant money to pay for prevention, treatment and recovery services.
The real questions now are: (a) is it enough funding to stem the tide and (b) can any amount of money achieve this goal? Perhaps the answer to both questions is no, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Florida has been a leader, nationally, in terms of opioid overdoses. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state accounted for 12 percent of the 33,000 people nationwide who died in 2015 from opioid overdoses.
This is the second recent major drug-addiction-related initiative with direct ties to Palm Beach County. There have been nearly 30 arrests in the past few months of individuals who have been breaking the law while running illegal “sober homes.”
So-called “sober homes” are intended to be supportive transitional environments for individuals preparing to face the world during recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. In 2015, the state passed a law requiring recovery residences and their administrators to be certified. At the time, sober homes were unregulated, so the state was not even sure how many there were. Far too many of them do not provide the services recovering addicts need, using the addicts instead as an easy source of revenue.
Last year, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg began a task force consisting of prosecutors and law enforcement to study abuses in the industry and find solutions. The result has been a crackdown on such abuse, which has direct ties to the opioid situation.
We are pleased to see this situation is being dealt with at the local and state levels, and hope this start brings us closer to the end of this nightmare