OKEECHOBEE — Three people overdosed on heroin, laced with fentanyl, in Okeechobee County this week and only one survived, said Sheriff Noel E. Stephen. On Tuesday morning, June 25, a young man overdosed followed shortly afterward by another. Soon after that, a third individual ran from law enforcement officers, who had a warrant for the individual’s arrest, and upon capture suffered a heart attack, said the sheriff.
Emergency medical services were able to save that person by administering treatment which included Narcan, and that person is alive today. The sheriff said Okeechobee is experiencing accidental overdoses involving individuals shooting up heroin laced with fentanyl.
“No mother should have to find her son like that,” he said. In the past, heroin was not really a problem in Okeechobee, but in the last six months or so, there has been about one death per month, and this week, there were almost three, he said. Years ago, there was only one, maybe two areas in Okeechobee where drugs were sold, but now, he said, drugs are sold in almost every community.
Sheriff Stephen will begin his 33rd year with OCSO in November. He started in the county jail in 1987, and he said he is beginning to see third generations come through the jail now. Some of them start getting in trouble as children.
“What is the answer?” he asked. “How do we combat that? I wish I had the answer. It’s bigger than everyone can see, and the taxpayers end up having to fund it,” he said.
All of the sheriff’s budget goes for enforcement, he said. There is nothing left for education or prevention, although Deputy Jack Nash is in the position of community liaison, and it is his job to work to work on those things and to get the message to the public and the families.
All the resources the sheriff’s office has were used Tuesday trying to save individuals from themselves — county fire rescue, sheriff’s office personnel — all doing death investigations and trying to save these people after they injected poison into their own bodies, he said.
“I’m about to enter into a budget battle of county commission and taxpayers, trying to justify the increase in my budget, and it’s these very things that are services they don’t understand or even see.”
On Tuesday morning, all resources of the department — over 100 man-hours — were spent on three individuals who intentionally were killing themselves, he said. There was nothing left for the rest of the community. “I just have a problem with that,” the sheriff said.
Fortunately, the majority of our population are hardworking taxpayers, and the people doing these things represent only about 1% of our population, he explained, but he does not believe all of the county’s resources should have to be spent on that 1 percent.
On Tuesday afternoon, he took a trip down to West Palm Beach to meet with the attorney general about ways to deal with mental health and how it relates to recidivism.
“I ask and I beg for others in my county and in the state of Florida to get with our legislators and our governor and assist the attorney general in trying to find ways to combat these very things,” he said.
Sheriff Stephen said on the coast they are seeing the same individuals overdose, be revived with Narcan and immediately turn around and use again.
“I don’t want to get cold, and say we shouldn’t help them,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we are throwing money away and not getting anything in return.” He believes we need to change the way we are doing things, reevaluate the way we are using the few dollars we do have.
“Because what we are doing now is not working,” he said. “It’s frustrating to see people who have been arrested 50 times and have 20 felony convictions, and we still have to use resources to arrest them, prosecute them and send them back to prison. I just wonder — we all make mistakes, but one, two, three, maybe that’s OK, but four, five, six — that’s enough! We’ve got to ramp up our criminal justice system and take a good hard look at how we’ve been doing business to try to get a handle on this.”