ORLANDO, Fla. – More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, marking the deadliest year ever recorded in an epidemic that’s now claimed 1 million lives in the 21st century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma sat down with anchor Justin Warmoth on “The Weekly” to break down how the opioid epidemic has evolved over the years and what it’s going to take to get the crisis under control.
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“The problem now is that many people still think there’s a problem with over-prescribing,” Lemma said. “People are not going in and getting over-prescribed medication anymore; they’re getting counterfeit drugs on the black market.”
The prevalence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, is the primary reason for the record number of overdose deaths.
Lemma said drug dealers and manufacturers are lacing pills and other street-level drugs with lethal amounts of fentanyl.
“It’s like the equivalent of Russian roulette,” Lemma said. “People are taking this, they’re ingesting it for, sometimes, the first time ever, and they’re dying nearly immediately.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that increases the punishments for fentanyl trafficking. In Seminole County, Lemma said they’ve charged more than 30 drug dealers with first-degree murder, which is more than any other county in the state of Florida.
“I think there’s a missed opportunity across the country because many jurisdictions are still treating these situations as what we call accidental overdoses,” Lemma said. “We treat every single overdose as a crime scene. Behind every single person who overdoses, we can use evidence and gather information that leads us back to the drug dealer.”
This deadlier phase of the opioid crisis comes as more than 46 million Americans—nearly 1 in 5 adults—face the reality of living with a mental illness. Experts say the coronavirus pandemic has especially impacted the younger generation’s mental health.
The average overdose age continues to skew younger, according to new federal data, as it’s now the leading cause of preventable death among people ages 18 to 45. Lemma is encouraging parents to talk to their kids about mental health and addiction.
“You cannot be addicted to a substance and not also have the co-occurring, co-present mental health condition that goes along with that,” Lemma said. “I think now is the perfect time for parents to reengage and have conversations that extend well beyond alcohol and marijuana.”
As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, Lemma said societal changes need to happen to break the stigma associated with mental health disorders.
“I think we have to break out of this mindset that it’s our job as citizens to simply mind our business,” Lemma said. “When we see things wrong, sometimes we (misclassify) them, even in the workplace. If you have somebody who is normally contributing to the just cause of the company, and they have not been on their game, sometimes it’s so easy to just look at that as a performance issue without going up with the sincere desire to help and asking, ‘Are you okay?’”
Lemma also talked about the life-saving drug Narcan and the push to make it more accessible.
Watch the full interview in the video player above.