Lawmakers target heroin epidemic with two bills

Two Florida lawmakers have responded to the opioid epidemic with bills that would increase sentences for selling fentanyl and require hospitals to provide additional care for overdose victims.

The bills are the first introduced in the Florida Legislature’s 2017 addressing the opioid epidemic. The session begins on March 7.

HB 61, filed by Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, requires hospitals to screen overdose patients to determine the need for additional services and prohibits hospitals from discharging overdose patients to a detox or drug treatment center until the patient is stable.

The attending physician must also attempt to contact the overdose patient’s primary care physician or any other treatment providers who prescribed a controlled substance to the patient within the last year and inform them of the overdose.

If the patient is currently in a treatment program, the hospital’s attending physician must also inform the medical director at the treatment center about the overdose.

The hospital must also inform an overdose patient’s family or emergency contact about the overdose, the drug the attending physician believes may have caused the overdose and provide them with a list of drug treatment providers. Information about how to take legal action to protect an addict under Florida’s Marchman and Baker acts must also be provided.

»» Read the Post investigation – Addiction Treatment: Inside the Gold Rush »»

Finally, the bill bars police and prosecutors from filing criminal charges for drug possession against overdose victims when the drugs are discovered during emergency, life-saving efforts.

SB 150, introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, R, Sarasota on December 12, makes selling, buying or manufacturing at least 4 grams of fentanyl a first-degree felony. Fentanyl is an opioid painkiller used to sedate surgical patients and relieve chronic pain. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin.

In The Palm Beach Post’s Nov. 20 analysis of 216 people who died in 2015 from heroin-related overdoses, fentanyl was found in 42 percent of the cases.

Steube, whose district covers communities particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic, is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Local lawmakers, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, have said they, too, will file bills based on the recommendations of the Sober Home Task Force.

During the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers gave $275,000 to Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg to investigate corruption in the drug treatment industry and propose new laws and regulations and tweaks to existing ones.

The Sober Home Task Force has made nine arrests since Aronberg launched it on July 1. A three-month-long grand jury investigation revealed widespread patient brokering and insurance fraud and recommended changes to laws and regulations.

Aronberg, a former state senator, said he would travel to Tallahassee to urge lawmakers to incorporate the recommendations of the grand jury in their bills and to lobby for additional money for treatment and regulatory oversight.







Amid soaring heroin use, Gov. Rick Scott greenlights Florida’s first needle exchange program

Hypodermic needles   found in the trash at a cottage apartment by Jean Thomas, 83, in West Palm Beach's Prospect Park neighborhood. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
Hypodermic needles found in the trash at a cottage apartment by Jean Thomas, 83, in West Palm Beach’s Prospect Park neighborhood. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s taken a while- a few years, actually- but today Gov. Rick Scott signed off on a pilot program in Miami-Dade County, run by the University of Miami, which establishes a needle exchange for addicts.

Once politically unthinkable, the state’s soaring rates of IV drug use- and deaths- have slowly made the idea of providing clean needles to addicts acceptable.

Credit the track record of needle exchanges in reducing rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. That helps explain why the Florida Medical Association threw its considerable weight behind the pilot program, and why a Republican-led Congress has lifted the ban on using federal money for such exchanges.

Florida’s program is, however, just a pilot. And the University of Miami won’t be able to use state or local tax dollars to get it up and running and keep it going.

But in a written statement, Bill Piper, Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, expressed optimism: “Hopefully this pilot syringe program is just the beginning of major changes in Florida,” he wrote.

Some neighborhoods locally might welcome that: In Prospect Park, 83-year-old Jean Thomas discovered a cache of needles in her trash last year.


No big prison reform, but now they can track the chemical spray

Apparently, Florida has all along needed a law- or Rick Scott’s blessing – to figure out just how much CS gas (aka pepper spray)  state prisons have, where they put it and how they can get rid of it.Scott+2015

Finding a better way to trash empty gas canisters is not what the architects of a sweeping Senate prison reform bill had in mind this past session.

That bill was gutted by the House, though, just before it closed down for business three days ahead of schedule.

All along, lawmakers behind the Senate bill said the House’s suggested reforms weren’t reforms at all, but were window dressing: Changes that no one needed a law to implement.

Like figuring out how to inventory pepper spray.

This afternoon, Gov. Scott signed  Executive Order 15-102, which the governor’s office said makes “significant reforms in Florida’s prison system to improve safety, transparency and accountability.” Among the reforms:

  • Establishment of a usage and inventory policy to track, by institution, the use of chemical agents and disposal of expired, used, or damaged canisters of chemical agents.

The order also includes some significant items, such as unannounced inspections and  statistical analysis examining use of force by guards.

Not included, though, was the central Senate reform, an independent oversight commission. Nor were other reforms the Senate considered necessary in the wake of a series of stories by The Post, the Miami Herald and others exposing prison inmate deaths, abuse and unchecked brutality.

Just months ago, FSU’s Project on Accountable Justice concluded the state prison agency was so flawed that it recommended basically rebuilding it from the ground up.

One of the cases cited by the group:  The 2010 death of  Randall Jordan-Aparo.

He was gassed to death by guards.




Prison reform dead on arrival in House

Oh, who needed prison reform, anyway?

Certain Florida lawmakers just couldn’t get out of Tallahassee fast enough,  even if it meant dropping a major prison oversight bill like a hot potato.

A bill which included creation of an oversight  committee to watchdog the Florida Department of Corrections  sailed through the Senate- but the House  balked at the oversight provision.

Then the House, in a snit-fit worthy of the Terrible  Twos, adjourned yesterday, three days before the  session was slated to end. They couldn’t agree on  health coverage, so why keep talking when you could pack your bags and go home? asked House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Bills were left in in the dust. And so was prison reform.

Henry Carvajal, whose undiagnosed bone cancer was treated with Tylenol, ibuprofen
Henry Carvajal, whose undiagnosed bone cancer was treated with Tylenol, ibuprofen

That’s despite the fact that in the last year, The Palm Beach  Post, the Miami Herald and the News Service of Florida have all detailed horrific neglect, abuse and deaths.

Thomas Newcomb, ex guard charged with conspiring to murder former inmate
Thomas Newcomb, ex guard charged with conspiring to murder former inmate

And just this month, an ex-Florida prison guard – and  reputed Ku Klux Klan Grand Cyclops – was

arrested and charged with conspiring to murder a  former inmate. Also  arrested were two other Florida  state prison guards, both identified as KKK  members.






Kids and crime: Will lawmakers put the brakes on charging kids as adults?

Kenneth Young, at 14 given four life sentences for a string of robberies orchestrated by his mother's drug dealer.
Kenneth Young, at 14 given four life sentences for a string of robberies orchestrated by his mother’s drug dealer. He’s now the subject of a

Rambling its way through the Legislature is a bill that could upend Florida’s penchant for trying teenagers as adults- including teenagers as young as 13.
Florida is a national leader in the numbers of minors charged as adults, and Palm Beach County has been among the most aggressive of Florida Counties.
In one case described by Palm Beach Post reporter Jane Musgrave, a 15-year-old set a soap dispenser on fire at Lake Worth High School. He stomped it out, but the $45 of damage prompted the state attorney’s office to charge him as an adult for first degree arson. A conviction would have sent him to prison for 30 years.
Of 135 juveniles charged as adults in Palm Beach County in 2012, Musgrave found, 80 had no prior record. Ten of those first-time offenders were charged as adults for selling $10 bags of pot to undercover agents.
Everyone from the conservative leaning James Madison Institute to the reliably liberal Human Rights Watch have weighed in on the side of changing how Florida sentences kids.
The proposed Florida bill would do just that: curb the ability of states’ attorneys to charge teenagers and give judges more flexibility in sentencing them.
Here’s the Human Rights Watch critique of Florida sentencing kids:
For the James Madison Institute’s white paper:
And you can see a state analysis of the bill and judge for yourself here: