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Lawmakers hear about county’s growing drug problem at meeting

The “Say No to Drugs” message has fallen on the deaf ears of many Pasco County teens, said Land O’ Lakes High School student Ormond Derrick.

“Drugs are a major problem. Nowadays, you find more teens driving high than driving drunk,” Derrick told the Pasco County legislative delegation at a public meeting at Sunlake High on Tuesday.

As a part-time employee for the county’s parks and recreation department, Derrick said he often sees teens selling and using drugs.

“It really woke me up to the problem,” he said. “Kids have much more access to marijuana and other illegal drugs today.”

Determined to help curb drug use among teens, Derrick and Sunlake High student MyKenzie Robertson joined Safe Teens Against Drugs, sponsored by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention. STAND is a team of youth leaders intent on putting a halt to substance abuse in Pasco County by educating teachers, law enforcement officials, business owners and parents about the problem.

At the annual meeting to get people’s thoughts before the Jan. 12 start of the legislative session in Tallahassee, delegation members learned about the county’s growing drug problem.

Several Pasco County drug treatment and mental health agencies joined law enforcement officials in appealing to the delegation for more funding to prevent and treat drug problems.

“Last year, the big topic of concern was prescription drug abuse,” said state Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, chairman of this year’s delegation. “We seem to have gotten a handle on that problem, but now there’s a problem with the use and distribution of illegal drugs.”

“We’ve made amazing progress in reducing prescription drug deaths since the Legislature created a drug-monitoring program last year that allows us to stay on top of what drugs are being prescribed,” said Chris Sprowls, county coordinator for the office of Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe. “But now we’re experiencing a spike in heroin.”

“We’re seeing a lot more heroin and meth flowing up here from Miami,” said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reports that heroin deaths have increased sharply in many states, with Florida among them.

In the past decade, heroin use more than doubled among those age 18 to 25, according to the CDC. Heroin-related overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013. The CDC has not released the data for 2014.

Observers of the trend say the reasons are twofold.

The Drug Enforcement Agency reported that heroin and methamphetamine trafficking are increasing across the U.S.-Mexico border and that Mexican cartels are expanding into the United States.

At the same time, Florida’s statewide crackdown on the illegal sale of prescription drugs has made it less expensive for drug users to buy heroin (smack), meth and synthetic drugs than prescription drugs of choice, such as Ritalin, Xanax and Hydrocodone.

To demonstrate the extent of the local problem, Nocco showed the delegation a manila envelope brimming with confiscated synthetic drugs including so-called “bath salts” that have hallucinogenic effects.

Because the synthetic drugs are a fairly recent phenomenon, Nucco said, state laws do not adequately addressed them.

“You treat people arrested with synthetic drugs the same whether they have one packet or 100,” he said. “We’re trying to go after the dealers.”

Sprowls said McCabe also is focused on treating the users and dealing more harshly with the dealers. He is especially worried about military veterans struggling with addiction issues.

With funding appropriated by the state Legislature in 2013, the Pasco-Pinellas state attorney started a Veterans Treatment Court to help treat vets with service-related substance abuse and mental health problems.

“We need to continue that funding,” said Sprowls, “because it allows us to divert these veterans to treatment rather than jail.”

Neal Dwyer, community manager for the nonprofit Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, said obtaining funding for drug and mental health treatment programs is a continual challenge.

“One in 15 people live with mental illness, and one in 11 with drug abuse problems,” he said. “Yet we’re seeing the capital funding for these issues declining. We need more behavioral health funding.”

Bob Langford, chairman of Pasco AMIkids, said it is equally important that the Legislature continue to fund preventive programs such as his New Port Richey-based nonprofit program. Founded in 1993, Pasco AMIkids helps troubled youngsters make positive choices and turn away from drugs and crime.

“You’ve saved an unbelievable number of kids,” Langford told the delegation, noting that it costs $20,000 to house a prisoner but $14,500 to put a youngster through Pasco AMIkids.

“So we would really appreciate your continued funding,” said Langford.

Davida Bowen, prodigy development specialist for the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corp. in Tampa, expressed a similar need for continued funding.

Bowen said her program uses the arts to teach life skills to more than 600 Pasco children, often keeping these children out of the criminal justice system.

Although all did not speak, 70 people signed up to address the legislative delegation this year.

“That’s about typical,” said Legg. “But, in past years, the speakers were more interested in changing laws or policy. This year they’re asking for money.”

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