PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — The first federal trials related to the opioid epidemic are scheduled to begin next month. The cases involve Cuyahoga and Summit Counties in Ohio, but the outcomes could signal what Tampa Bay communities could expect from their own lawsuits.
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“We were the epicenter of Florida. They were coming right here, buying the pills, selling the pills, and if you look at the county and how devastated it is, you know it’s still being affected,” said Jim Magazine, the attorney representing Hernando, Pasco, and Pinellas Counties and Saint Petersburg in their legal action against the opioid industry. “So now, the mission becomes: how do you help these people? How do you help the county? Because now you’ve got them on street drugs, which is just as bad, if not worse.”
According to DEA data processed by Securities Litigation and Consulting Group, which provides expert witnesses to law firms and works on cases like securities class actions, more than 256 million dosage units of opioids were distributed in Pasco County from 2006-2012.
The year that saw the highest volume was 2011, during which 21.9 million units of oxycodone and 12.2 million of hydrocodone were doled out.
“This is not just a public safety issue. This is a societal issue we’re dealing with, and it goes back to these pharmaceutical companies,” said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. “At some point, morals should’ve kicked in and said, ‘Red flag. Why are there over tens of millions of pills being distributed in Pasco County when there’s less than half a million people at the time living there?”
During that same time, data shows Hernando County saw more than 109 million dosage units distributed. Its peak year during that time was 2010, when 8.5 million units of oxycodone and 5.4 million units of hydrocodone were distributed.
“One thing we were seeing in both counties around that same time was a tremendous amount of opioid deaths,” said Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis. “These drugs are very powerful, and people, once they get addicted, it’s nearly impossible to get off of them. So, we need all the resources we can to help those people who want to get off of them.”
Magazine said nationwide, damages awarded from the opioid lawsuits could total into the billions, but it’s too early to say how much individual counties or cities could receive.
Nienhuis and Nocco said they’re already thinking about where that money could be spent, including targeting some of the ripple effects of opioid epidemic. Both sheriffs said they don’t have to look any further to see those effects than their own detention centers.
“Majority of people in our jail probably have substance abuse issues or mental health issues. That would go to help them. That is a hospital,” Nocco said of the Pasco center.
Nienhuis said the Hernando detention center’s new medical unit has helped with handling mental health issues, a number of which stem in some way from substance abuse, but he’d like to see services available further expanded. He said any money that comes the county’s way could also help Hernando recover from some of the financial strain the epidemic has caused.
“I think the county could definitely use some of it to replenish some of the reserves that have been spent down to try to catch up, because the economic recovery hasn’t impacted Hernando in a positive way like it has some other counties. The county commission has been spending a lot of those reserves to help support first responders and help us address some of those issues,” said Nienhuis.
Nocco also said he’d like to see special emergency rooms created specifically devoted to handling mental health issues.