Heroin relapse

Of all the things to be making a comeback: heroin.

It was the illegal drug of the 1960s, smuggled here from the Middle East, often through Marseilles, France. That city became so infamous as the transfer point that in 1971, the Oscar-winning “The French Connection” starred Gene Hackman as a New York City detective tracking a shipment from Marseilles.

Today, heroin comes to the United States from Central and South America. But the problem is not just New York’s. Last month, the Delray Beach Police Department called a news conference because department officials said 17 of the 24 heroin overdoses in the city this year came in May. Three of those cases were fatal. Only one overdose death had occurred in the previous four months.

“It’s a public health issue,” Delray Beach Police Public Information Officer Jeffrey Messer said in an interview. The department called the news conference to raise public awareness and avoid “another round (of overdoses) like that.”

Ironically, heroin’s resurgence grew out of a success story.

For much of the last decade, Palm Beach County in particular and South Florida in general became overrun by illegal prescription painkillers. So-called pain clinics—many not run by doctors—dispensed oxycodone pills by the thousands. Some went to addicts in this area. Many more went to ravage rural areas of the Mid South and the Middle West.

Six years ago, Palm Beach County law enforcement started cracking down. The same happened in Broward. The most infamous operation busted in this county was run by the George brothers, Chris and Jeff. In 2011, when Chris George’s wife pleaded guilty in federal court, prosecutors estimated that the family business had dealt 20 million oxycodone pills in just two years.

Heroin, like oxycodone, is an opiate—a sedative. Those who lost their oxycodone connection, Messer said, moved to heroin. The new heroin, however, had a new ingredient—fentanyl. It also is an opiate, and it showed up in the toxicology screens of addicts in Delray when another round of overdoses came in late 2013.

At that time, Messer was working narcotics. He worked that case, and said Delray and other agencies responded to those overdoses, which led to arrests of the alleged suppliers of that batch of heroin. The cases are in federal court.

For local police, the frustrating thing is that all they can do from a law enforcement standout is try to arrest those near the end of the distribution chain. Messer said even at that level they carry business cards.

This being Delray, one question is whether the city’s large number of sober houses exacerbates the heroin problem that those in law enforcement and drug treatment have been warning about for two years. Delray’s sober houses, Messer said, “get a bad rap. They do much more good than harm.” In an interview I did with Delray Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Goldman, he said, “No question, if we had fewer sober houses, we’d have less crime.”

I spoke with Messer the last week in June. He said the city had seen two more overdoses in the month, one of them fatal. “It’s easier to buy heroin in Delray,” Messer said, “than anything else.” Delray Beach offers one more example that the long-term solution to drug crime is prevention and treatment, not just law enforcement.

Radio collapse?

The potential loss of a Palm Beach County-based public radio station is frustration but perhaps not final.

The Palm Beach Post reported two weeks ago that Minnesota-based American Public Media Group intends to sell WPBI-FM—formerly WXEL-FM—to a religious broadcasting company that does not intend to carry National Public Radio programming. Classical South Florida bought WXEL from Barry University in 2011 and changed the call letters.

More important, the new owner shifted programming on 90.7-PM—WXEL’s spot on the dial—to classical music. NPR programs went to 101.9-FM, a northern Palm Beach County station that has a much weaker signal. You can get NPR on 90.7 with an HD radio, but the concept and the technology befuddle some listeners, who also like the convenience of hearing NPR on a traditional radio.

Fortunately for NPR fans in this area, the Miami NPR station—WLRN-91.3 FM—has a signal strong enough to be heard clearly in southern Palm Beach County and usually to West Palm Beach.

The owner of Classical South Florida is American Public Media Group, which produces “A Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace.” Classical South Florida also owns a station that serves Broward and Miami-Dade counties and a station in Naples. The company thought that WXEL would complement its offering. Those who opposed the sale worried that NPR programming would become an afterthought, and they were correct.

Richard Rampell, who owns an accounting firm in Palm Beach, serves on the board of National Public Radio and Classical South Florida. He was part of a local effort to buy WXEL four years ago, but Rampell said Barry “would not talk to us.” Similarly, the sale of the radio and TV station—WXEL-Channel 42—to Barry in 1997 was announced after the fact. The Classical South Florida board met last week and likely approved the sale.

I recall the campaign to bring public broadcasting to Palm Beach County in the early 1980s and the debate about whether it would be better to have local outlets of WLRN and WPBT-Channel 2. Rampell said he has contacted officials of WLRN, which the Miami-Dade County School District owns, about providing service in Palm Beach County if the sale of Classical South Florida goes through. Three decades later, that’s still the best option for public broadcasting in this region.

 

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.