Opioid abuse may grab the headlines, but drug related deaths overall are on the rise. And when it comes to helping people kick an addiction, one lawmaker believes Florida is rejecting some of the best people for the job.
Florida saw 2,126 more drug related deaths in 2016 than it did in the prior year according the Florida Medical Examiners annual report. That represents a 22 percent increase year over year.
“There’s a crisis in our state, and you all have heard me talk about this until I’m blue in the face,” Miami Republican Rene Garcia tells his committee, “There’s a crisis in our nation.”
Heading up the Committee on Children Families and Elder Affairs, Senator Garcia is one of the most consistent and forceful advocates on substance abuse and mental health policy. In 2016 he helped pass Senate bill 12—a measure streamlining those services by encouraging a ‘no wrong door’ approach. This session, he’s trying to recruit more peer specialists.
“There’s no better advocate than a peer specialist,” Garcia explains, “and there’s no better person to help that individual get through that darkness than a peer specialist.”
Put simply, peer specialists are men and women who have dealt with addiction or another mental illness, gone through recovery, and now want to help others.
Gino Scano says there’s just one problem.
“We had a young fella, came in for a job as a peer specialist,” Scano begins, “I’ve known him for 21, 22 years—he’s been sober for 20.”
“He’s an icon in the recovery community, he has a 21 year old possession charge and he was disqualified.”
Scano is a recovery coach with Centerstone in Bradenton, Florida.
“I’ve been in recovery for 27 years,” Scano offers, “I was a heroin addict for 24 years, an alcoholic most of my life, I’m a disabled vet, I have PTSD and I’m not a throw away.”
He and others in the field say these experiences aren’t deficiencies—they’re bona fides.
But ironically the resume that makes someone a good mentor, often bars them from participating.
“They get certified and then we see that they go through the level two background screening and then get stopped for the very thing—the very lived experience that made them become a peer specialist,” Cameron Wood says.
Wood leads the Peer Support Coalition of Florida.
Under current law, felony drug possession is enough to disqualify a person from being a peer specialist. So Garcia’s plan would carve out a range of low-level crimes from the screening process to make it easier for peer specialists to gain employment in the field.
“And these are individuals that have—whatever criminal background they have it’s always related to their illness,” Garcia says.
“It makes no sense,” Garcia says of rejecting those applicants. “So that’s why we have to reduce some of those barriers so they can easily go through the process.”
Garcia’s proposal passed its first committee unanimously, but it’s a panel he chairs. The measure has to pass two more committees—neither of which Garcia sits on—before hitting the Senate floor.
The House could present another challenge. So far, there’s no companion measure in the lower chamber.