8 Investigates: Sarasota, a haven of culture, prosperity…. and heroin overdoses

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SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Law enforcement agencies throughout Tampa Bay are desperate to stop a plague that’s killing people every day, heroin.

The spread of the deadly drug is rising to critical levels, but what makes it so surprising is where a lot of it is being found — in Sarasota County, a haven of culture, prosperity and world-renowned beaches.

“It bothers me in Sarasota County because we’re a white-collar community with high property values and low crime. To see this many people in this community have this much addiction,” said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight.

This year alone, Sarasota County deputies reported 99 heroin overdoses and 15 deaths. Even scarier,  many of these drug batches are laced with fentanyl, a deadly opioid that’s 100 times more potent than morphine.

And shockingly, the Florida Department of Health says Sarasota County ranks second in Florida for fentanyl-related deaths.

“It destroyed everything, it took away my family, it took away my dignity, my pride, everything that I had,” said Katie Albritton.

Albritton went from a normal childhood to an adulthood embroiled in heroin. It cost her health, her home and hardest of all, custody of her son.

“It finally hit me that something had to change or I was gonna be dead,” Albritton recalled.

Her story reflects why heroin has placed this area in its grip.  Years ago, Sarasota County had a huge problem with prescription drug abuse. When local officials shut down these local pill mills, addicts like Albritton had nowhere to get their fix, so they turned to heroin.

“It kind of caught us off guard,” recalled Sheriff Knight.

The Sheriff says dealers will take fentanyl and mix it in with heroin to make a better profit. It can be sold on its own, disguised as heroin or as an oxycodone pill.

Officials say heroin comes in from Mexico and is widely available in Manatee County. Now, the drug is spreading south to Sarasota. Unlike many other drugs, it is very hard to detect.

“It’s not anything that one of our canines can hit on and identify through a traffic stop, so it’s very hard to find and very hard to recover and it can be transported in a very small form,” said Knight.

PJ Brooks counsels recovering addicts at First Step of Sarasota. He says heroin impacts people of all ages, races and economic classes.

“It’s an equal opportunity offender. The thing is, everybody now has access to it,” said Brooks.

He argues around the Sarasota area, there are not enough resources or affordable recovery programs to save these addicts.

“We’re talking about hundreds of people that need access to care that just aren’t getting it and their drug of choice is life threatening,” said Brooks.

“I tried to get into programs, they wanted money, I didn’t have money. That was a big thing, I didn’t have insurance so that cut that off,” recalled Albritton.

So what’s the solution? Well for one, money. Experts say more state and federal funding is needed for treatment programs and counselors.

Sarasota is not alone in this problem. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there’s a large “treatment gap” in this country. In 2013, an estimated 9 percent of Americans needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol, but only about one percent received treatment at a specialty facility.

“How do you cover the cost? Medications that would help with these treatments, along with the counseling, can be very expensive,” said Brooks.

And also, the community needs to step up and stop their family and friends from being embroiled in this crisis.

“[Family and friends] need to be the ones doing the prevention. Not waiting for the person to overdose for us to get them,” said Sheriff Knight.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is doing all it can to aid in the effort. Sheriff Knight has equipped and trained his deputies to help treat heroin addicts they encounter. And inside the jail, deputies offer incarcerated addicts monthly injections of Vivitrol. It’s a special prescription to treat opioid dependency.

The sheriff’s office also arranges to have the inmates treated at a drug rehab facility.

Detectives have also increased their efforts to arrest drug dealers.

“This is not a drug where we’re going to arrest our way out of this problem. This is going to be a long-term effect on each community if we’re waiting on law enforcement to just arrest everybody,” explained Sheriff Knight.

“When the communities take responsibility for it, it will wean out. When they become our partners, it’ll go away sooner,” Knight added.

The sheriff says this mission is vital.

“We could lose control of this and we could end up like the other counties around the nation if we don’t get this under control quickly,” the sheriff said.

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