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Marion County Overdoses Down In 2018, Opioid Use Remains

Brittinie Blaze Rooney and Marion County Heroin/Opioid Task Force Navigator Phil O'Day leave the Marion County Courthouse Thursday, December 14, 2018. Rooney and O'Day attended drug court proceedings to advise defendants and link them to resources. (Anthony Nicotera/WUFT News)
Brittinie Blaze Rooney and Marion County Heroin/Opioid Task Force Navigator Phil O'Day leave the Marion County Courthouse Thursday, December 14, 2018. Rooney and O'Day attended drug court proceedings to advise defendants and link them to resources. (Anthony Nicotera/WUFT News)

Brittinie Blaze Rooney described her heroin addiction as a domineering force that took no prisoners.

She remembers what it was like before her intensive treatment, recovery and hundreds of hours of volunteer work.

“It’s really like being held hostage in your own body,” Rooney said. “The drugs take control of everything.”

Rooney, 20, grew up in Ocklawaha, Florida in Marion County. She said her parents both battled addiction and divorced when she was five years old. She then bounced between various foster homes and parents throughout her adolescence.

Rooney was 13 when she first started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. At 15, she’d moved to methamphetamine. She started shooting heroin by 18.

“Before I knew it, I was sticking a needle in my arm and doing anything I could for drugs,” Rooney said.

Like many of her peers, she used drugs to avoid coming to terms with past trauma.

“Any substance I could use to get me out of myself, out of my mind, that’s what I was doing.”

It wasn’t until she entered the Drug Court Expansion Program, an alternative to prison, that she was forced to come to terms with her situation. The accountability, rules, and structure of the program led her to realize that she couldn’t cheat the system.

She spent six months at the Auburndale Bridge treatment facility in Auburndale, Florida, which was the first place she felt she could open up and talk freely about her past. This treatment, in addition to an extensive out-patient regiment and regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings, gave Rooney the peer support network she needed.

Like much of the country, Marion County has felt the grim impact of the opioid epidemic. Opioids caused 98 deaths in the county in 2016, and an estimated 160 in 2017.

A recent North Florida High Intensity Drug Area (NFHIDTA) report, comparing data from the first half of 2017 to the first half of 2018, indicates a ten percent decrease in deaths caused by drugs in the broader North Florida region.

Medical Examiner District 5, which includes Marion, Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties, saw slight improvement. The district had 62 drug deaths in the first half of 2017, compared to 55 in the first half of 2018.

The general trend from 2017 to 2018 indicates that there has been a reduction in drug overdose related deaths, but that doesn't necessarily equate to a reduction in drug use.

Narcan, an FDA-approved brand of naloxone that reverses an opioid overdose, has become more widely available for law enforcement, family members and friends. There are still overdoses, but not as many deaths, according to the NFHIDTA report.

"Ultimately, the drug epidemic in our community is not being treated at the source, meaning WHY the individual takes drugs and HOW to permanently break the addiction," the report states.

Phil O’Day was hired earlier this year as the “Navigator” for the Marion County Heroin/Opioid Task Force. O’Day, a former addict himself, considers himself a “resource broker.”

He connects addicts with the resources and treatment that he believes best suit their needs. O’Day estimates he’s worked with 300 individual clients from early March to the end of October. Some of those clients he has saved from overdoses with Narcan, but Narcan alone isn't enough.

“Somebody quit breathing, and you bring them back,” O’Day said. “But that doesn’t address the problem. The problem is addiction.”

The Ocala Police Department began an amnesty program in February that allows addicts to ask an officer for assistance in receiving treatment for their addiction. The program allows the officer to confiscate any drug paraphernalia and transport the addict to a treatment facility without pressing charges.

The department also now treats every overdose death as a homicide. If dealers can be connected to a user’s death, they will be charged with murder, according to a Florida law that went into effect in October 2017.

Treatment and housing are always in demand. The organizations partnering with the police to provide care are The Centers and Perspectives. While both provide residential treatment, Perspectives also provides medication-assisted treatment. This entails “…the use of medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance abuse disorders and prevent opioid overdose,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There are only six detox beds in all of Marion County, according to Marion County Children's Alliance prevention coordinator Nancy Castillo.

Castillo is optimistic that the numbers of opioid overdoses and deaths will continue to decrease in the coming years.

“I think with us being such a small community and being able to put all these resources together in such a short period of time, it points to the partnerships and collaborations that we have,” Castillo said. “Because we can’t do it alone.”

Rooney sometimes refers to those who haven’t been addicted to heroin as “Earth people.” These people are the general population who may be aware of the opioid issue but cannot fully understand the devastation it can bring to bear on people from all walks of life. She advocates for everyone to learn more about the dangers of these drugs.

Rooney now works full-time for an Ocala construction company and spends the rest of her time as a certified volunteer for the Marion County Children’s Alliance. She enjoys working in the field alongside O’Day, whose grassroots approach she believes is the most effective way to make a difference.

“You’ve got to start at the bottom and work with an individual,” O’Day said.

O’Day believes that stopping the pharmaceutical connection and changing the way opioids are prescribed will prevent the next generation of heroin addicts, but that won't help the masses of Americans already addicted, he said.

“For them, it’s get clean or die.”

Anthony Nicotera is a reporter for WUFT News and can be reached at 352-392-6397 or anicotera1@gmail.com.