Spike in heroin deaths leaves a trail of tragedy in the Tampa Bay area
TAMPA — Brianna Rae Stamm slumped over a coffee table in a Lakeland guest cottage, her hands pocked with needle marks, an empty 1-inch-square wax paper packet next to her with the words “Face to Face” stamped on it. A syringe lay on the floor near her lifeless 27-year-old body.
Her last act on Oct. 16 was to inject herself with heroin as her 30-year-old boyfriend, Donald Graham, slept on a nearby couch.
Detectives checked a cellphone Graham and Stamm shared and found this text from the person thought to be the “Face to Face” dealer: “This s--- is too strong, bro. Please don’t try to do more than half a bag at a time.”
Six days later, Lakeland police responded to a fatal overdose in another part of town. Strewn about were remnants of heroin use, including an empty 1-inch-square wax paper packet bearing the words “Face to Face.”
The victim: Donald Graham.
Stamm and Graham are part of a troubling spike in heroin overdoses reported across the nation and in Florida. It’s an increase that began in 2014 and continues to soar this year as a new and powerful brand of heroin slinks into the Sunshine State.
“Tragically, that is the mindset of many opiate addicts,” said James Hall, a drug-abuse epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Hall, who serves on the epidemiology panel for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, added, “They believe they have the tolerance to withstand this new and powerful heroin.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported that over the past decade, heroin use more than doubled among those between the ages of 18 and 25. Heroin-related overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013. The CDC has not released the data for 2014.
The number of heroin-related deaths in Florida more than doubled in 2014 over the previous year, according to an annual report issued by the Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission. Across the state last year, 447 people died from or had heroin in their systems when they died, compared with 199 in 2013.
Ninety-four percent of the overdoses were ruled accidental.
Lynne Knowles had lost her daughter, Jamie.
The Clearwater teen went missing a few months after her Countryside High School graduation in 2007, and Knowles tracked her down through GPS to a nearby Walgreens.
“We found her in the bathroom with a needle in her arm,” Knowles said. “That was the first true knowledge of what was going on. We had suspicions but no real idea that it had progressed to IV drug use.”
Jamie began experimenting with drugs when she was 14, Knowles said.
“We found out about it and did all the things parents do,” she said. “We got counseling and we monitored her.
“She seemed to get better, but then started using again later in high school. We had no idea. She hid it really well,” Knowles said. By the time Jamie graduated, “she was a full-blown addict, using three times a day. Still, she kept it well hidden.”
After finding Jamie in Walgreens, the family tried to get her into recovery, though the teen fought the efforts. Over the next few years, Jamie spent time in and out of jail.
“She was a bright, beautiful young girl, and she was able to manipulate the system to do everything to stay out of rehab,” she said. “We did everything we could. We went through the medically-assisted recovery program where you medically detox them. We spent thousands.”
There were times when Jamie used and disappeared. There were times when she came home clean and sober.
“It’s the story you hear from just about everybody,” Knowles said. “It’s truly a disease. We know that now.”
In 2010, Jamie agreed to get help.
“She showed up on our doorstep a skeleton,” Knowles recalled, choking back tears and taking deep breaths to suppress emotions brought on by bittersweet memories. The mother wants and needs to tell this story. “I didn’t recognize her.”
Jamie went into rehab and began getting her life together. She started college, though the urge to drift back into her old habits always was there, her mother said.
Jamie moved to Arizona to be with an uncle who had been clean and sober for 20 years. She rekindled a relationship with a young man she knew in high school. He was in the Navy, and the two married.
“She was well, happy and healthy,” Knowles said. “But she had fallen away from going to meetings and working on her own recovery.
“And while he was deployed,” her mother said, “she relapsed on heroin.”
Jamie drove to San Diego and skipped over the Mexican border, where she bought some black tar heroin.
“She had never experimented with that,” Knowles said. “We know she was using for 1½ days with that heroin, until it took her last breath.”
Jamie Godette-Church was 23 years old when she died in June 2011.
“She was my only child,” Knowles said. “A part of me died that day. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know if I wanted to live. I felt guilty.
“I wasn’t going to have what I always had dreamed of — a daughter who would have a wonderful life with a family and children. That was all taken away in one second.”
Time passes, but Knowles thinks of her daughter almost every day.
She now is president of the Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education local task force, which focuses on education and awareness of substance abuse.
“That’s where I’m at right now,” she said. “I’m grateful every day that I had 23 years with my daughter.”
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office reported that through last month, autopsies were conducted on 26 people this year who either died directly of heroin overdoses or had heroin in their systems.
In Hillsborough County, 2004 was the high mark, with 34 heroin deaths, according to medical examiner records that date to 2000. Over the next nine years, the number of heroin deaths dropped dramatically. There were two in 2011 and two in 2012. In 2013, just three such deaths were reported.
The jump came in 2014, when 22 people died of heroin overdoses in Hillsborough County.
Pinellas and Pasco counties, which are grouped together in Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics, reported one death each in 2011 and 2012. In 2013 there were four deaths in Pasco-Pinellas. And last year, seven heroin-related deaths were reported.
One reason for the sudden bump, according to narcotics agents, is availability.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reported that heroin trafficking is increasing across the U.S.-Mexico border as the Mexican heroin trade expands.
In the past, heroin originated from far-flung places such as Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, and that limited its availability here. But drug cartels in Mexico are bumping up production in the central Mexican highlands, where poppies flourish.
In Florida, the statewide crackdown on the illegal sale of prescription drugs over the past five years has made it less expensive for drug users to buy heroin, methamphetamine and synthetic drugs.
“We were very successful across the state in reducing the pill mills and the easy access to prescription opiates,” said Cindy Grant, executive director of the Hillsborough Anti-Drug Alliance, “but then people began looking for something else to replace it.”
Users not seeking treatment, she said, risk their lives.
“We have learned that the heroin more available now is deadlier,” she said. “Some of the heroin is laced with fentanyl, leading to many overdose deaths.”
Dealers often mix heroin with fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that increases the drug’s potency and reduces cost for the dealer. In Florida, deaths directly caused by fentanyl alone in 2014 increased by 115 percent over 2013, records show.
“A lot of people are not aware,” she said, “that the heroin out there on the street is laced and deadly.”
Addicts think the heroin they’re ingesting is high-quality, said Hall, the South Florida epidemiologist, “but it’s actually adulterated with poisonous fentanyl, which makes it 50 to 100 times more potent.”
He said the nation is poised for a heroin epidemic.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” he said. “There is a significant increase in the potency and the quality of heroin produced specifically in Mexico. More recently, we’re seeing the white Mexican heroin with a higher purity level” in the eastern U.S., including Florida.
The other key factor is prescription opiates, taken illegally without prescriptions, he said, “and that’s literally the breeding ground for the nation’s heroin epidemic.”
Eighty percent of new heroin users are addicted to prescription opioids, Hall said. Most of them are 18 to 30 years old, white and equally divided gender-wise.
“The crackdown on pill mills has been effective in reducing the supply side of prescription opioid medications,” he said. “But increased heroin use was the alternative.”
He said one of the failures of the 2010 crackdown was that although it addressed the supply of illegal opioids, the state that same year cut back funding for addiction treatment.
Hall suggested a few ways to deal with the approaching heroin epidemic:
♦ Reduce inappropriate prescribing patterns of opiates; there are other ways to manage pain effectively.
♦ Increase resources and access for treatment.
♦ Provide naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses. It has been used by paramedics and emergency rooms for years and should be available over the counter for relatives of addicts.
♦ Educate families of addicts about the signs and symptoms of overdoses and how to intervene.
♦ Implement more needle-exchange programs. They do not encourage use but can connect addicts with resources to get them into treatment.
Seven weeks ago, Tampa was one of 50 cities that participated in a National Candlelight Vigil to erase the stigma associated with drug addiction, which is one of Knowles’ main goals, and to remember the 30,000 Americans who die every year from drug overdoses.
“Every story is unique,” said the Clearwater mother who still grieves for her daughter, “but the thread is always the same. It can be anyone. I know people from all walks of life who have lost a child. It doesn’t hurt any more or less based on the circumstances.
“The pain for those left behind, I think, is all the same.”