ORANGE COUNTY — After a surge in recent reports of heroin-related activity around Orange County, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has formed the Orange County Heroin Task Force to better focus on that drug from an array of perspectives.
“Regarding the use of heroin and overdose-related things, we have seen a spike in that, which is I believe why this heroin task force was created by the sheriff (Jerry Demings) and the mayor (Teresa Jacobs),” OCSO Cpt. Carlos Espinosa said.
Espinosa is one of four co-chairs of the OCHTF Law Enforcement Subcommittee with Orlando Police Chief John Mina, Central Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Director Steve Collins and Danny Banks, Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent in charge.
Other subcommittees are in education and prevention, health care and treatment, with involvement from organizations such as Orange County Public Schools, Orlando Health and Florida Hospital.
So far, the OCHTF includes members from the Orlando Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the DEA, with other law agencies added as activity indicates the need, Espinosa said.
That activity has not yet reached the western part of the county in large numbers, he said.
“Specifically out in West Orange County, I would say no, we haven’t seen anything that has been reported — we have not seen huge numbers,” Espinosa said. “But the numbers seem to be more along the South Orange Blossom Trail area, although we have seen some different places.”
In the first seven months of this year, among 162 reported heroin-related overdoses and 30 such deaths, Sector III of Orange County, which mostly comprises West Orange, had 14 overdoses and three deaths, according to OCSO data. Only three overdoses and three deaths in Sector III were unrelated to heroin.
But Espinosa did say the West Orange Task Force — which includes members from OCSO, Ocoee Police Department and Winter Garden Police Department — already handles various tips and examines drug-related offenses in West Orange, so it will be a resource in the battle against heroin.
In the immediate future, though, the first meeting for the subcommittee will be Sept. 8 to look at stats, trends and strategies, Espinosa said.
“But the overall mission of this task force is to look at it from a law enforcement perspective, to look at it from a treatment perspective, and then from whatever type of other programs we can provide to help the community, because we’re looking at what’s an addiction — it’s an illness,” he said. “Certainly we need to treat it from a law enforcement perspective by combating the criminal side of it, but the task force itself is also looking at other things as far as treatment, programs and things like that, which will include obviously the west side of the county and the different cities that are out there, should we feel that it touches those areas.”
Within a six-month period, Espinosa believes the OCHTF can have a rapid, significant impact.
Based on rapidly rising numbers, the response will need to be fast and effective.
Carol Burkett, Orange County Drug Free Office director, said 75 heroin overdose deaths occurred last year in Orange County, as opposed to 15 similar deaths in Osceola County.
Through July, 409 heroin arrests had occurred in Orange County, according to OCSO data. In 2013, 437 heroin arrests had occurred for the whole year, with 546 heroin arrests last year.
Beyond that, the 162 overdoses and 30 deaths from heroin usage this year already exceed OCSO totals from 2013, and the number of overdoses is more than the past two years combined. In each of the last two years, about 1,600 grams of heroin was seized in Orange County, but already more than 2,365 grams have been seized this year.
Finally, 1,529 Orange County law enforcement submissions of heroin occurred from 2010 to 2014, more than the rest of Central Florida HIDTA — Osceola, Hillsborough, Seminole, Brevard, Polk, Volusia and Pasco counties — combined.
This period has seen a dramatic national spike in heroin as a drug of choice in the U.S., especially among young adult males, based on increased availability and cheaper prices. Users steadily require more heroin to get high, to the point their high exceeds bodily tolerance, often resulting in fatal respiratory issues. Other diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C, also become common among users sharing needles or sexual contact.
If you know someone using or considering heroin, call 211 for treatment options.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].