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Heroin abuse at 'epidemic' level in South Florida -drug report

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A high-profile law enforcement crackdown on prescription painkiller abuse in Florida has addicts turning increasingly to heroin, resulting in the highest number of overdose deaths and hospitalizations in recent years, a report on drug abuse said.

Deaths from heroin - now more potent and widely available than ever - rose 89 percent statewide from 62 in 2011 to 117 in 2012, with the problem reaching epidemic proportions in South Florida, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institute of Health.

In Miami-Dade County, deaths jumped 120 percent, from 15 in 2011 to 33 in 2012.

"We're talking here about the mother of addictions," said James N. Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University who authored the report with 20 NIDA researchers nationwide who have met biannually since 1976 to track drug use trends.

"The crossover from the prescription products to illicit heroin complicates that and will fuel the continued epidemic," he added.

Statistics for drug-related deaths in 2013 are not available yet, but Hall predicted "this problem is certainly going to get worse before it gets better."

The bulk of the drug supply comes from Mexico, where drug cartels once known for making a less pure black tar or brown powder form of heroin, now produce a more potent white powder version, Hall noted.

Most worrisome, medical experts say, is that the latest spike in heroin use and deaths is among young adults, ages 18 to 29, who are using it in place of prescription pain pills.

"A student misses two days of classes, gets kicked out of (college), kicked out of their house and arrested and you're seeing consequences in 72 hours because of the drug and the impulsive young adult mind," said David Vittoria, assistant vice president at Baptist Health South Florida's Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center.

Until recently, Florida was the nation's capital for the illegal prescription pain medication trade. The state once had 90 of the top 100 oxycodone-purchasing physicians in the nation and 53 of the top 100 pharmacies supplying the pills.

Many of those pills made their way up the East Coast, sold at high markups in rural communities stretching from northern Alabama to western Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 was dubbed Oxy Alley for the dealers who regularly drove hundreds of miles to South Florida to buy cheap pain pills.

On Monday, Pennsylvania health and law enforcement officials said 22 people died over a six-day period from a fatal mix of heroin and the powerful narcotic Fentanyl, sold in bags stamped with names like "Theraflu" "Income Tax" and "Bud Ice".

Earlier this month, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin used his State of the State speech to address the problem, saying there had been a more than 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates since 2000.

"What started as an Oxycontin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis," he said, outlining a plan to combat the problem, while requesting more than $1 million to fund expanded recovery and treatment programs.

In 2010 and 2011, Vermont had the highest rate of illegal drug use in the country, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Similar funding and programs are needed nationwide to treat substance abuse problems before they turn into full-blown addictions, Vittoria said.

"In Florida, we had a full force effort at cutting the supply (of painkiller pills) without ever addressing the demand, which was a fatal mistake," Hall said.

(Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)

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