Hillsborough officials highlight a surge in fentanyl-related arrests
Law enforcement officials say they are cracking down on people who sell fentanyl. Despite those efforts, overdose deaths remain high.
Hillsborough County officials are calling attention to a surge in fentanyl-related arrests and overdoses.
So far this year, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office has arrested 174 people for dealing or possessing the deadly synthetic opioid, according to Col. Robert Ura.
“Fentanyl is by far the most dangerous drug that we’re seeing today, 50 times more potent than heroin, 100 times more potent than morphine,” he said during a Tuesday news conference in Tampa.
Joining him was Hillsborough State Attorney Suzy Lopez, who said the 13th Judicial Circuit has seen a 1,300% increase in fentanyl-related criminal cases in the past five years. In 2022, she said 126 cases were filed in Hillsborough County compared to just nine in 2018.
This year’s numbers could be even higher, she said, stressing that the drug is destroying lives throughout the county.
“These are real people and real families who are losing loved ones because of this deadly poison,” said Lopez. “This office today and every day stands with victims and we promise to relentlessly pursue every avenue that we can to assure that these drug dealers are taken off of the street and sent to prison.”
Drug overdoses are still a problem
The state attorney and law enforcement officials shared examples of recent success stories where members of their departments arrested or prosecuted individuals who trafficked fentanyl and were responsible for overdose deaths and other crimes including human trafficking and possession of illegal guns.
Despite the crackdowns, overdose rates in the county remain high.
The Tampa Police Department investigated 82 opioid-related deaths in the first six months of this year, according to Capt. Travis Maus. That puts 2023 on pace to exceed last year's death toll of 159.
Many of those deaths involved fentanyl, Maus said, and victims often did not realize they were taking the highly potent drug. While dealers used to primarily mix fentanyl with heroin, law enforcement officials at the news conference said now, just about any drug could be laced with it.
“Reports of fentanyl being found in powdered drugs that might be sold as cocaine, MDMA, or methamphetamine make the use of illegal narcotics that much more deadly,” said Maus.
Members of the public should assume any illicit substance contains fentanyl and avoid taking it, officials cautioned.
Florida has tougher drug laws now
Recent state laws have increased penalties for fentanyl-related crimes.
Last year Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation to increase minimum mandatory sentences for fentanyl trafficking. Selling and distributing four to 14 grams of drugs that contain fentanyl now carries a seven-year minimum sentence, up from three years. Trafficking 14 to 28 grams carries a 20-year minimum sentence, up from 15 years.
This summer another law went into effect that establishes even harsher penalties for people who sell fentanyl in a form that could be confused with candy or vitamins. Lopez touted the legislation as an effort to crackdown on dealers targeting children.
Drug policy experts have been skeptical of those claims and suggest fentanyl traffickers are instead putting the drug in colorful pills to mimic other prescription drugs that adults take, such as Adderall or oxycontin.
Harm reduction advocates argue policies focused on tougher legal penalties can sweep up low-level drug users into the criminal justice system in addition to the high-level dealers they intend to target, and could also discourage individuals from reporting overdoses for fear of punishment.
A 2018 report from the Pew Charitable Trust found more imprisonment does not reduce state drug problems.
But as drug overdoses surged during the coronavirus pandemic and continue to remain high, more states – both conservative and liberal – have responded by increasing penalties for possession and distribution.
“We are not trying to focus on those who are dealing with addiction,” said Col. Ura of law enforcement’s efforts to stop the spread of fentanyl. “If you have a loved one that is dealing with addiction please seek help.”
Last year the state also launched recovery networks in counties with high rates of opioid overdoses to help users connect with treatment options.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction you can get support by calling Tampa Bay Cares at 2-1-1 or SAMHSA's national addiction hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
Other addiction resources are available here.
Anyone who has information about someone who is trafficking fentanyl is able to report that to law enforcement anonymously through Crime Stoppers (1-800-873-TIPS).
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office offers other ways to submit a tip on its website.