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A mass fentanyl overdose event in Gadsden is drawing statewide attention

A collection of fentanyl patches, clearly marked with warnings against non-prescribed uses, shown in 2006.
Tom Gannam
A collection of fentanyl patches, clearly marked with warnings against non-prescribed uses, shown in 2006.

A mass fentanyl overdose event in Gadsden County over the 4th of July weekend is deepening concerns about drug trafficking and the rising cost of drug abuse in the state. Nineteen people overdosed on the drug and nine of them have died. The situation was so alarming it drew the attention of nearly every state agency to the county during a recent roundtable.

“To have that number in such a short span, we were afraid we’d wake up in a week’s time and have 30, 40, 50 people dead. That’s a lot of people for Gadsden County. We only have 46,000 people in the county," said Gadsden Sheriff Morris Young. He added that when he left the office last Friday, the word fentanyl "wasn't a part of my vocabulary."

By 9:30 p.m. that night and after responding to a home where two women had died, it was.

“Events like the ones the Sheriff just described…it can be really sobering it can rock a community to the core," said Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris.

Harris joined Young, First Lady Casey DeSantis, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Chief Mark Glass, and Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo at a roundtable in Gadsden. The all-hands-on-deck callout comes as fentanyl has become one of the leading causes of drug overdose deaths, a fact not lost on First Lady DeSantis.

“This stuff is being manufactured in China and it's pouring across the border. Back in 2021, when you look at all the fentanyl that was seized at the border, it was 11,201 pounds. That’s enough to kill every American in the United States six times over," she said.

Fentanyl in medical settings is used as a pain reliever. It's 100 times stronger than morphine. Yet what’s being sold on the streets is often a counterfeit version that is frequently mislabeled as more mundane drugs like Xanax which some people view as a “safe” drug. The illegal version of fentanyl can be used to lace other drugs like marijuana or cocaine—and those who purchase it may not even know it's there. Young says he knows how the drugs got into the county; they came from Mexico, were brought into Atlanta, and then distributed down to North Florida and South Georgia.

“We have a pyramid, we know a lot of the players responsible for spreading this poison, and we’re going after them," he said.

In a separate and unrelated case, the federal government recently indicted 26 people and seized 500,000 fake pills that were laced with fentanyl, heroine, meth and cocaine. That drug trafficking operation, according to the DEA, was based in Mexico and the fake pills were being shipped into the U.S.

The mass fentanyl overdose event in Gadsden is not the only one that’s happened recently. During spring break this year in Wilton Manors, four West Point cadets overdosed after ingesting fentanyl that was likely mislabeled as something else.

A new state law going into effect in October raises the penalties for drug dealers whose products result in overdose or death. That could even be up to first-degree murder charges.

“We’re searching for answers. We’re not experts on this," said Young. "These folks who are responsible for poisoning these people, we’re going after them.”

The state has, in recent years, launched an effort to get the overdose-reversing drug out to first responders and law enforcement in an attempt to save lives. First Lady DeSantis says the state is also announcing a new awareness campaign aimed at people who may not know their drugs could be poisoned. According to the 2020 Florida Medical Examiners report, fentanyl was the drug that caused the most deaths.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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