Palm Beach County is known for sun, fun, sober homes and a drug problem that has spiraled out of control.
Delray Beach alone has about 700 sober homes, housing some 7,000 recovering addicts. That’s more than 10 percent of the city’s population, according to NBC News.
Yet opioid addiction and drug-related overdoses and death have reached epidemic proportions. The problem is so bad that in early May Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, earmarking nearly $30 million in federal money for services aimed at drug use prevention, treatment and recovery.
There are people on the front lines already trying to make a dent in the problem. Dolores, who asked not to use her last name, is a local nurse practitioner and addiction specialist who contracts with hospitals and psychiatric facilities from Palm Beach to Miami. I asked her to share what she sees daily in her work with addicts.
“Nearly all of them start very innocently, Dolores says, “and then it becomes a huge problem.”
A typical scenario, according to Dolores’ experience, is a person goes to the emergency department for unbearable back pain, claiming to have tried every over-the-counter remedy to no avail. The person goes home with a three-day supply of opioids.
That’s proper care. According to healthcare best practices or guidelines people should only be on opioids for three days at a time.
But this person is still in pain after three days and goes to his or her primary care doctor with the same complaint. This time, the patient might leave with a week-long prescription for opioids. In no time, some of these people become addicted to the pills, Dolores says.
“We live in a society where people want a quick fix,” she says.
Part of the responsibility lies with patients, she added. Providers might recommend physical therapy instead of pain meds, or weight loss for a patient with painful knees, for example. But that’s too hard. They’d rather have a pill, Dolores says.
And the healthcare system wants to oblige. Pills are covered by insurance; whereas massage, weight loss programs and other healthy alternatives are usually not.
The problem spirals from there. We’ve done a great job as a state at shutting down pill mills. But the pain remains unresolved. So patients that can no longer get opioids turn to heroine, Dolores says.
What many people don’t know is that the heroine epidemic has created a population of people of all ages who are injecting drugs and becoming positive for hepatitis C, she says.
“We are losing the war on drugs,” Dolores says. “We have young kids coming from all over the United States to Florida, which is the addiction state of the U.S. These young kids are addicted and a ton of them are hep C positive.”
According to NBC News, many of the young people who come to Florida to get sober end up dying. They become disconnected from family and friends and end up in a community of former and current addicts.
To make matters worse, the drugs are more deadly than ever. Dealers, according to Dolores, have laced drugs, from heroine to weed, with addictive drugs like fentanyl to create a pipeline of hooked customers.
An overdose on fentanyl, coupled with heroin, slows a person’s respiration until that person stops breathing, she says.
Add to that the post-traumatic stress that happens when one former or current addict sees another die from a heroin overdose, she says.
By the time Dolores encounters these people, they’ve usually attempted suicide, are withdrawing and desperate for yet another quick fix. She says she does everything she can to ease their withdrawal symptoms without prescribing something that will once again feed the addiction.
“I love them all. But they’re persuasive. I have to be strong and methodical,” she says.
People can help themselves and prevent addiction by becoming familiar with how these drugs should be used, if they’re needed. The Florida Medical Association recommends that doctors follow these recommendations from the CDC, when prescribing opioids. Get to know the recommendations, take steps to protect yourself and don’t always look for that quick fix.