As Florida's opioid addiction epidemic worsens, Democratic legislators are calling for a resurrection of the Office of Drug Control to more effectively coordinate the state's response.

  • Office of Drug Control shuttered in 2011
  • Resources could be better steered to treatment centers
  • Questions remain about Office's effectiveness

The office was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, only to be shuttered by Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature's Republican leaders during a round of sweeping budget cuts in 2011. The office, Scott's staff contended at the time, had not proven its usefulness in preventing drug use and trafficking.

In the ensuing years, however, opioid addiction has reached crisis levels. Nearly 6,000 Floridians died from overdosing on painkillers last year.

This week, Sen. Kevin Rader (D-Boca Raton) and Rep. Joe Abruzzo (D-Boca Raton) filed legislation (SB 1068/HB 865) to bring back the Office of Drug Control.

"Opioid abuse is crippling Florida's communities," Rader said. "Reinstating a drug czar to lead the charge in creating better drug oversight is a step towards what our state needs to battle this ongoing epidemic."

Addiction recovery advocates say the most valuable benefit from reinstating the office would be real-time statewide monitoring of hospital visits and deaths linked to overdoses. The information could help Florida's community-based treatment centers take proactive measures.

"What an office does is it says, 'hey, we see this trend happening and we need to be able to provide Naloxone so that we can prevent some of these overdose deaths, we need to bring the hospitals to the conversation so that we can do something about people overdosing and showing up in emergency rooms and being released, we need to bring the community providers together to link the emergency rooms'," said Florida Behavioral Health Association CEO Mark Fontaine.

While Naloxone helps reverse opioid overdoses, another drug - Vivitrol - has proven to be highly effective at ending the cravings opioid addicts have for painkillers. A single injection lasts a month but, at a cost of roughly $900, some treatment centers have found it difficult to secure enough funding to provide for all their patients.

A revived Office of Drug Control could also help steer additional resources to treatment centers with larger caseloads. While such administrative efforts would themselves require money and manpower, advocates predict the funding would pay for itself.

"For someone in a state prison, you're probably paying $20,000 to $30,000 a year to keep them in that institution," said Patrick Lane, a counselor and nurse at DISC Village, a Tallahassee community-based treatment center. "While this thing is not a hundred percent effective, it certainly can help people. And so, every person we prevent from getting into that system, we save even more money."

The drug control office's effectiveness, however, continues to be hotly debated. Shortly after the bills to reinstate the office were filed, Republican political operative Brian Burgess - who served as Scott's communications director when the office was eliminated - took to Twitter to criticize them.

"At the time the Office of Drug Control was eliminated, it was little more than a prop, trophy and plaque storage shop so politicians could do law enforcement photo ops," he wrote. "In short, it was a PR tool and little else."

The legislation's supporters dispute that notion. Fontaine, a member of the Florida Drug Policy Advisory Council, believes the office had - and could have again - the power to save lives.

"I've been doing this work for 40 years," he said. "We're in the worst epidemic I have ever seen in that time period. Certainly, a higher level of coordination, I think, would have helped us get ahead of this."