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Health & Science

Florida officials look to tackle drug abuse -- in the courts and in the boardrooms

The Palm Beach Post
Attorney General Pam Bondi with Florida Sen. Joe Negron talk about prescription drug abuse and its impact on newborn babies

Florida officials say they’re working to tackle drug abuse, but they’re going about it in several different ways. As Sascha Cordner reports, Attorney General Pam Bondi is renewing the focus on prescription drug abuse and its effects on babies. But, Governor Rick Scott has is continuing his effort to drug test thousands of state workers, despite a recent ruling by a federal judge.

Governor Rick Scott says he’s planning to continue the fight to let state agencies randomly drug test about 85,000  state employees, even after a federal Judge in Miami declared the Governor’s executive order to be unconstitutional.

In her 37-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Ursala Ungaro said suspicion-less, random drug testing violates state workers Fourth Amendment Rights.

“The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches by the Government. It’s an unconstitutional search when the Government seeks to collect and inspect bodily fluids without any reasonable suspicion that they’ve done something wrong or without  a special need for such a search.”

Shalini Goel Agarwal is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged Scott’s executive order last year along with AFSCME, or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Agarwal says both unions are happy with the judge’s ruling.

“Her decision will protect the basic dignity and privacy rights of tens of thousands of state employees who otherwise would have been drug tested for no reason whatsoever.”

But, the Governor’s Spokesman Lane Wright says one reason the Governor wants to appeal the decision is because the state owes it to the taxpayers to drug test employees.

“The taxpayers overwhelmingly support it by the way. And, it makes sense that if state employees are being funded by taxpayers, these taxpayers should know that they are getting service from people who are not using drugs they are getting a safe and productive workforce here.”

Several critics have come out against the appeal, including a few Democratic lawmakers, who say the process should stop with the federal court judge. And, Paul Brewer, a state employee who works at a print shop, agrees. He says it’s time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars.

“I would hope that he would not continue with this because not only do I work for the state, I’m also a taxpayer, and I don’t want to see my money wasted on a lost cause. The federal government has ruled on this, and I think that’s enough.”

Scott is expected to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge’s ruling could affect a new state law that would permit random state worker drug testing starting in July.

In a separate, but related move, the state’s battle against drug abuse found its way from the courtroom to the boardroom.

Attorney General Pam Bondi is looking into the scope of the problem surrounding drug-addicted babies known as neonatal withdrawal syndrome. Bondi recently held the first meeting of the Statewide Task Force on prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns. She says she’s already found the problem is not only in Florida, but other parts of the country as well.

“A nurse came up to me from in East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville, and one day they decided to do a snap shot of the babies who had this issue, and on one day, 68-percent of the babies in their NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) were there simply because they were born addicted to prescription drugs.

And, Mindy Young, a registered nurse at Saint Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa, shared a similar story.

At her hospital, the doctors and nurses realized a woman was in labor, who was taking prescription drugs for her pain. They then found that her unborn baby was addicted to oxycodone, after he exhibited strange behavior when he was born:

“Michael wouldn’t eat. He rubbed his skin until it was raw, he would not sleep more than one to two hours all day and all night, he had terrible diarrhea that got worse, and there were his shrill cries that were piercing through the unit. The gentle rocking that comforts most babies only make Michael more agitated. They weren’t the cries of a normal newborn. These were the cries of a baby who couldn’t tolerate movement, light, and stimulation.”

The doctors are trying to slowly wean Michael off the drugs by readdicting him to another drug, but Young says they have no idea what effects might linger as Michael grows up. Young says she hopes Bondi’s task force will go a long way in educating expectant mothers to avoid going down the same path as Michael.

Bondi says her task force is expected to break into individual workgroups to look at how to address the epidemic and should meet back up together after June.