With 70 million annual visitors and a population of 1.3 million, Central Florida is densely populated.

Unfortunately, the theme parks, sun and fun hide a more sobering reality — Orange County has the highest number of heroin overdose deaths in all of Florida, even though areas like Miami have twice the population. As Carol Burkett, director of the Orange County Drug Free Coalition, noted during a panel on opioid addiction at the 2018 IACP Conference, the turning point hit in 2014 when the region saw 13 overdose deaths in one 24-hour period.

Soon after, law enforcement, medical and community partners gathered to create the Orange County Heroin Task Force. As Burkett noted, the Task Force had its work cut out for it.

From a law enforcement standpoint, Steve Collins, director of the Central Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), and a veteran of the DEA, noted that Orange County is part one of 28 HIDTA regions in the U.S. The Central Florida HIDTA covers nine counties along the Interstate 4 corridor.

Since taking a more holistic approach to opioid addiction, law enforcement now regularly seizes fentanyl, Collins noted, adding that of the 121 drug trafficking organizations that regularly operate in the HIDTA, they have been able to disrupt more than 40 percent of them.

But drug trafficking has gotten more complex. Columbian cartels that were once highly active in Florida ceded much of their effort to Mexican cartels and Chinese manufacturers of fentanyl. And the delivery method of drug has also changed as more traffickers use U.S Mail to ship illicit drugs. Fentanyl seizures went from 2.9 kilos in 2016 to 5.6 kilos in 2017.

Efforts gained more ground when law enforcement worked with legislators to double bond amounts for heroin trafficking and enact enforcement on Title 21 violations, or distribution of drugs that are known to have caused a death. These parties also worked with legislators to reschedule fentanyl as a trafficked substance rather than a controlled substance — a more serious classification.

While these efforts have seen some success, Collins admitted, “We can’t arrest ourselves out of the situation.”

In addition to engagement with medical professionals, more law enforcement agencies carry Naloxone — an emergency drug that can be administered to overdose victims and counteract fentanyl’s affects. Since the program has been enacted in July 2016, Collins noted there have been 260 successful saves.

Another successful strategy, Burkett noted, is to train law enforcement to talk to drug users. She added that this approach doesn’t mean that people are no longer arrested, but law enforcement works to engage addicts, and try to drive them toward treatment and break the addiction cycle. Another option to traditional incarceration is to enroll offenders in drug court programs where offenders are involved with in-patient treatment, and work with the judge on their case for 6-9 months, in an effort to get healthy people back into the community faster.

But as the panel noted, more data collection on opioid use is vital to the success of these efforts.