When a local Alachua County farmer had shoulder surgery at 42, she didn’t expect to get addicted to oxycontin. Nine years ago, it wasn’t believed to be an addictive drug.
Opioid use can provide a user with warmth, peace of mind and pain relief, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
When the high is over, people who use drugs are left with an intense craving for more. For this farmer, it numbed her feelings.
“The abuse was really not until I snorted — until you inhale it, you don't get the instant relief and stuff,” she said. “You don't have as many problems but once you have that [instant relief], then it's just quite bad because it induces a physical and a mental attachment to it.”
In Alachua County, emergency services responded to 1,451 overdose calls in 2022. The previous year there were 1,405 overdose calls with 62 fatal overdoses. In an effort to combat overdoses, Alachua County and the city of Gainesville have implemented multiple services to assist people with addictions seeking help and recovering addicts like the now 51-year-old farmer who requested anonymity.
After her prescription ran out, she started to buy oxycontin from people on the streets. The people she bought from sold part of their prescription for a little over what they originally paid for it, she said.
She’s been clean for four years now, and while she attributes her sobriety to her support group, marriage and outpatient clinic, she feels Alachua County is limited in their resources for drug rehabilitation.
“Alachua County is limited by its size and funding,” she said. “Gainesville is a quite small town, and they just don't have the resources available.”
People with addictions should seek help for their mental health, she said. She believes depression plays a big role in addiction.
“Addiction is an out-of-control thing,” she said. “You don't know when something is gonna happen and it triggers you throwing all your morals to the ground again and going to something to numb.”
Claudia Tuck, director of the Alachua County community support services department, noted the resident therapeutic community, county drug court, outpatient care and syringe exchange programs as services offered publicly and privately in the county.
Metamorphosis, a long-term, high-intensity resident therapeutic community is open 24 hours a day, has a 21-bed capacity and is primarily justice involved, Tuck said. Most of the residents in Meta come from County Drug Court, which offers an alternative for individuals with substance abuse disorders who have felony criminal charges in Alachua County.
Therapeutic community, or TC, models promote overall lifestyle changes, rather than simply refraining from drug use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. TC models have proved effective for improvements in substance abuse, criminal charges and mental health, NIDA reported.
Meta has been operating in Alachua County for 30 years, Tuck said.
“It's a resident-driven model where they work together to hold each other accountable,” she said.
Court-identified officers assess individuals in the jail to see if they meet the required criteria for the program. From there, a judge accepts or rejects the individual and they have to follow their treatment plan recommendations and periodic urine tests, Tuck said.
Another possible county program focused on drug rehabilitation is a syringe exchange. Florida passed the Infectious Disease Elimination Act in 2016, but it was amended in 2019 to allow county syringe exchange programs. The act precluded any state or local dollar from funding it, Tuck said.
The program is not yet live in Alachua County, but the IDEA Exchange program in Miami was the first of its kind in the state and was reported to be successful, according to the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“It allows for a one-to-one needle exchange with the ultimate goal of twofold encouraging individuals to get into substance abuse treatment and counseling,” Tuck said.
The program would also prevent HIV spread by limiting the number of shared needles, she said.
The county is also working on bringing methadone treatment into the jails, County Commissioner Mary Alford said. Methadone is a drug used to treat narcotic drug addiction and can lessen withdrawal symptoms.
“That keeps them from having to go through really, really awful withdrawal, but it also gets them into the treatment loop before they're released again, which I think is really, really helpful,” Alford said.
Methadone is a synthetic opioid, like fentanyl or morphine, but it has a different structure, which allows it to cause pain relief while simultaneously stimulating opioid receptors in the brain, said Daniel Wesson, UF chair and associate professor of pharmacology and therapeutics.
“You get the feeling of being on an opioid, but it's not as potent,” he said. “It’s less likely to trigger problems with normal brain function.”
Drugs can be mind-altering, said Wesson, a member of the UF Center for Addiction Research and Education.
The normal functions of a human brain operate under various chemical systems, Wesson said. Drugs alter how those neurochemical systems work, which changes electrical activity in the human brain and results in drug cravings.
“When drugs like opioids and amphetamines and cocaine make contact with your brain cells — this radically transforms the sensitivity of those brain cells to normal neurochemicals,” Wesson said. “In many cases, it makes those brain cells less sensitive with time, to the point that you need more and more of that chemical for normal function.”
A growing concern in Alachua County is fentanyl, Assistant Fire Chief David Sutton said. He has seen an increased number of fentanyl calls throughout the week but said it’s impossible to know exactly how many the fire department handles weekly.
Fentanyl is highly powerful and highly addictive, according to NIDA. It’s often cut with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamines to create a stronger high for less money, but as the brain adapts to the drug, it diminishes its sensitivity to it.
Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine — even a small counterfeit pill could contain a lethal dose, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. One kilogram of fentanyl — the weight it’s typically distributed at — could have the power to kill 500,000 people.
Police are attempting to handle the distribution of fentanyl, Sutton said, but the task is easier said than done. Fentanyl can be formed into prescription pill look-alikes, most commonly Adderall, and it can be bought in bulk for cheap.
“There's a large percentage of pills that people are taking that they are selling as another drug but it's actually just fentanyl,” Sutton said.
Narcan, or naloxone, is a narcotic that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Fire rescue teams will sometimes use Narcan if they find signs pointing to opioid overdose, such as difficulty breathing or pinpoint pupils.
Meridian Behavioral Healthcare provides the Alachua County community with access to free Narcan and shows residents how to administer it, Alford said.
The mental health and rehabilitation services offered in Alachua County are not the only place people with substance use disorders turn to, Rabbi Berl Goldman, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center at UF, said.
Goldman said he recalls doing wellness checks on students of high concern but feels there isn’t enough support in the community for those struggling with addiction.
“I guess the education is not enough, so you can never educate enough,” Goldman said. “I believe the field — the most necessary elements of support and help — is not as strong.”
Prevention and education are only possible when there’s financial support, he said. However, the solution is a complex team effort from the community.
The county is attempting to support drug rehabilitation through a variety of services and more are on the way. When compared with Leon County, the closest county to Alachua County in population, it has 13,000 more people but fewer overdose emergency calls and fewer fatal overdoses.
“Everyone should do better,” Goldman said. “The University of Florida can do more, but they're doing a great job. The government agencies that help in the school systems and in other areas, the health agencies from the county and the city and the campus are doing a great job.”
Contact Ella at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elladeethompson.
Ella Thompson is a third-year journalism major who's on general assignment for The Alligator's metro desk. In her free time, she likes to read, cook and think of feature stories for The Alligator.