Yulee, Fla. – Over the past three years, since Sheriff Bill Leeper has been in office, undercover Nassau County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Detectives have been busy arresting individuals for selling marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription medication. In fact, hundreds of drug dealers have been arrested, taken off the streets, and are serving time in jail as a result of their efforts. But now narcotic detectives can add heroin to the mix.
“Until recently, Nassau County has largely dodged the return of heroin across the United States and throughout the state of Florida, but it appears the drug is becoming more prevalent in our area,” said Sheriff Bill Leeper. In fact, according to Leeper, the opiate-based street drug is possibly to blame for three overdose deaths and two near-death overdoses in Nassau County over the past two weeks (since February 17, 2016). The three deaths occurred in Fernandina Beach, Callahan, and Hilliard. The two near-deaths occurred in Callahan.
Heroin-related deaths can be detected by looking at the number of deaths in a wider area, Leeper said. He noted that several counties around Nassau and across Florida are also seeing an increase in heroin overdose deaths.
Leeper believes the Nassau County heroin deaths is linked to the quality of the heroin that is now reaching local streets, and whether it’s mixed with other drugs. Investigators have frequently seen heroin mixed with fentanyl, an opioid medication often used to treat chronic pain. It is used as a “booster sedative,” making up for the typical low potency of heroin smuggled into the United States from Mexico.
Leeper said it appears that the purity level of the heroin on the streets now has increased significantly and it’s deadly. “What you took yesterday may not be the same thing you’re taking today, and it may kill you,” Leeper said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette. If you want to go and shoot up heroin, it may be the last time that you ever shoot up heroin,” Leeper added.
Often, those hooked on opiate painkillers will switch to heroin because it is much cheaper than pills per hit once heroin is established in an area, or if the user no longer has easy access to the prescriptions. One of the unknowns about heroin is that there is no way to determine how potent it is until it is taken, often intravenously. That makes catastrophic overdoses a real possibility with each use. “Some addicts overdose not knowing what they bought on the streets, while others try it knowingly in an attempt to get an increasingly better high,” said Leeper
Law enforcement officers say they see a direct tie between heroin use and abuse of prescription painkillers like Oxycodone. Patients become hooked on these prescribed medications, then go in search of supplies on the black market when their prescriptions run out. On the street, heroin costs about $10 for a fix.
Tackling demand involves finding treatment for more users and pushing for alternative drug courts, which focus on providing help for addicts who commit crimes rather than sending them through the regular criminal justice system.
Sheriff Leeper said he is trying to raise awareness about the epidemic and call attention to the warning signs. Those can include track marks or sores on arms or legs, weight loss or other changes in appearance, or sudden crimes, like stealing or prostitution. Users also often have drug paraphernalia with them, like syringes or small plastic bags. If you suspect a loved one is using heroin, Leeper said do whatever you can to get that person into treatment or rehab.
“If you are a drug dealer, we are coming after you. If you are a drug addict, you need to know there are some bad drugs on the street right now and the next 911 call we get could be as a result of your death. If you need help in getting off these deadly drugs, please call us and we will get you in touch with local organizations who can assist, but you truly have to want to get help,” Leeper concluded.