SEBRING — The good news for Highlands County, Florida is that a national report on opioid sales and deaths from 2006-2012 shows relatively little activity on either locally.
However, that same report by The Washington Post from research of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System, known as ARCOS, said the areas of the county that had the highest opiate-based drug sales in the seven years from 2006-2012 also show the highest number of opioid-related deaths.
Last Tuesday, The Washington Post published results gained after gleaning information from the database as the result of a court order.
The Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, waged a year-long legal battle for access to the database, which the government and the drug industry had sought to keep secret, The Post reports.
Within the online report were links to gather information for specific states and counties, including Highlands County.
Highlands County shows up on maps of sales volume as a place with low sales. Similar maps also show very few, if any opioid-related deaths, in Highlands.
Contact with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Central Records department revealed that the problem, apparently, has been rare enough not to need its own filing category.
Any search for opioid deaths or opioid drug confiscations would require a search of all death investigations or drug arrests throughout the county, officials said.
Requests for comment were made to the Sheriff’s Office Special Operations/Crime Suppression Unit, and answered by Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Scott Dressel, who said prescription pills have been less of an issue as other drugs.
“We have seen it in our county, not nearly at the level it is in other counties,” he said. “By far, the biggest drug problem is methamphetamine. That’s the one we’re focusing on the most.
“Obviously, we’re looking at any drug we want to get off the street,” Dressel said.
Lately, deputies have seen an “uptick” in heroin use, possibly because crackdowns on easily-obtained prescription pills have led some addicts to seek other opium-derivatives.
“For a while there, it went away,” Dressel said. “It’s not an issue and we hope it stays ‘not an issue.’”
Luckily, he said, the county has not seen any fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine.
The Post’s report analyzes just shipments from sales of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to retail pharmacies, chain pharmacies and practitioners.
The entire database tracks a dozen different opioids, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, which make up three-quarters of all pharmacy pill shipments.
The Post report also points out that the number of pills sent to each county does not indicate that those pills went to people who live in those counties.
The data shows what pharmacies received the pills and nothing else.
Also, just as the data showed a seven-year span, the data also ends seven years ago, in 2012. In the intervening years, efforts by local and state law enforcement sought to curb saturation of “pill mills,” usually referring to physicians who would over-prescribe pain relievers.
Florida, from 2006 to 2012, received supplies of 5.56 billion prescription pain pills supplied to the state. Of those:
• 1.43 billion were distributed by Walgreen Co. and 2.25 billion were manufactured by Actavis Pharma Inc.
• Walgreens Mail Service Inc., Orlando received the highest number of pills.
Highlands County, from 2006 to 2012, received 21.8 million prescription pain pills, enough for 31 pills per person per year. Of those:
• 7.65 million were distributed by Walgreen Co. and 9.1 million were manufactured by Actavis Pharma Inc.
• Walgreen Co., Sebring pharmacy received the highest number of pills at 2.8 million. The Sebring Walmart pharmacy received 2.3 million; while the Walgreen Co. Avon Park, Lake Placid and Sebring North locations each received 1.9 million, 1.8 million and 1.5 million, respectively.
Maps of heavy the purchases and overdoses in Florida showed heavy concentrations in Charlotte, Hillsborough, Manatee, Palm Beach and even Okeechobee counties.
Dressel said local law enforcement would want to watch out for the higher concentration of opioid problems in Okeechobee, although he would not be surprised if that indicated where people went to get prescription drugs seven years ago, including people from Highlands County.
“When people are addicted, they will go where they need to go,” Dressel said. “If they need to drive to Okeechobee, they will.”
For now, the data seems to suggest the opioid problems were on the coast, and speaking for one agency of local law enforcement, Dressel hopes that hasn’t changed.