Drug Abuse in Florida: Demographics, Trends, and Teen Rates

Since the Spanish explored Florida in 1513, the region has been considered a land of wonder and natural beauty. Located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Florida became an official state of the United States in 1845. Currently, the area is known for Disney World and several other theme parks, great Cuban food from the thousands of immigrants living there, retirement destinations, and growing about 80 percent of the citrus fruit (primarily oranges and grapefruit) consumed in the U.S. As of 2010, there were almost 19 million people living in the Sunshine State.

Florida has more coastline than most states in the U.S., and it is easily accessible by boat from both Central and South America. Because of this easy access, drug cartels often ship illicit substances into the state to be distributed across the rest of the country. New psychoactive substances (NPS) like bath salts and Spice made their debut in Florida, but the state’s party culture in several areas — especially the Florida Keys and around the various universities — also means that many residents struggle with alcohol abuse.

Although there are many people in Florida struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, the state has worked for decades to reform its treatment programs and make them as accessible as possible. Florida also has some of the harshest legal penalties for substance abuse in the nation.

picture of cities in florida

Trends in Substance Abuse and Treatment in the Sunshine State

To understand how Florida has geared its drug and alcohol treatment programs in the past, and how the state will aim its funding and legal focus in the future, it is important to understand the current state of substance abuse among residents in the area.
Alcohol: This is one of the most widely abused intoxicating substances in the entire country, not just Florida. Alcohol is legal to consume if you are 21 or older, and many people consume alcohol in excess.

For the past three survey years, Florida’s adolescents have abused alcohol at rates higher than the national average. In 2014 to 2015, for example, 10.7 percent of Florida’s youth, compared to 10.6 nationally, used alcohol at least once in the past month, which is illegal and a dangerous form of substance abuse for a developing brain. Both nationally and in Florida, however, this was lower than the 2013 to 2014 rates, when 12.3 percent of Florida’s youth and 11.6 percent of the U.S. adolescents abused alcohol. Between 2011 and 2015, on average, 9.4 percent of young people in the state started drinking every year.

Among adults, however, there are lower rates of alcohol use disorder (AUD) in Florida compared to the rest of the country. In 2014 to 2015, 5.9 percent of Floridians ages 12 and older, compared to 6.1 percent nationally, had a diagnosable AUD; this represents 1.09 million people in the Sunshine State. In 2013 to 2014, around 6 percent of Florida’s adults reported alcohol dependence compared to 6.5 percent nationally.

In Florida, about 7.9 percent of people struggling with alcohol abuse got the treatment they needed. Unfortunately, this means that between 2010 and 2014, 92.1 percent did not get help.

Prescription opioids: In 2010, Florida was one of the states suffering the most from opioid addiction, overdose, and related death. The problem predominantly stemmed from the large number of “pill mills,” or medical offices that would prescribe huge amounts of opioid painkillers and other drugs, like benzodiazepines, without working with patients on managing their conditions.

Thanks to major changes in legislation and a subsequent law enforcement crackdown, pill mills have mostly been closed around the state, which has dramatically lowered Florida’s rates of opioid abuse. Florida’s adolescents abuse prescription painkillers at slightly lower rates than the rest of the U.S. In 2013 to 2014, 4.4 percent of adolescents in the Sunshine State reported painkiller abuse compared to 4.7 percent nationally.

Marijuana: Florida does not currently have laws allowing for the recreational use of marijuana, but in the past few years, the state has passed legislation allowing for medical marijuana. In 2016, Florida voters passed an initiative to legalize marijuana for some limited medicinal applications, like cancer pain or epilepsy, as long as cannabis did not contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical leading to intoxication. The passage of the medical use law does not allow for use of the drug by anyone other than the person it was prescribed to, nor does it allow for recreational use or possession.

Amendment 2 went into effect in 2017, and expanded the definition of medical marijuana to make it more accessible. The Office of Medical Marijuana Use manages the details of this program to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

Among adolescents, 6.8 percent in Florida abused marijuana at least once in the prior month between 2014 and 2015; this was a slightly lower rate compared to the national average that year, which was 7.2 percent. However, this represented 95,000 adolescents, ages 12 to 17, who abused marijuana in Florida. Between 2011 and 2015, 4.9 percent of Florida’s adolescents started abusing marijuana every year.

Illicit drugs: Although the opioid epidemic’s epicenter was in Florida for many years, residents of the state abuse heroin at a lower rate than other residents of the U.S. In 2014 to 2015, 0.22 percent of Florida’s population abused heroin compared to 0.33 percent of the national population.

The rates of illicit drug abuse in general among Florida’s residents were also lower than the nation overall. In 2013 to 2014, 2.4 percent of people ages 12 and older in Florida abused any illicit drug, compared to 2.6 percent nationally. This represented 410,000 individuals in the state of Florida.

Between 2010 and 2014, about 12.6 percent of people who struggled with addiction to illicit drugs got the treatment they needed, but 87.4 percent did not.

man receiving treatment services from support group

Improving Treatment Services in Florida

As laws and accessibility change in Florida, more people are enrolling in substance abuse treatment. Single-day counts from 2011 to 2015 show this increase.
• In 2011, 51,201 people were enrolled in substance use treatment.
• In 2012, 54,357 people were enrolled in treatment for addiction.
• In 2013, 53,641 people were currently enrolled in addiction treatment.
• In 2015, 63,287 people were in addiction treatment programs in the state.
Among those enrolled in treatment programs in 2015, 45 percent reported a problem with a drug like heroin, Xanax, or cocaine; 14.5 percent reported a problem with alcohol; and 40.6 percent reported a problem with alcohol and drugs combined.

Addiction to an opioid drug of some kind appeared to be one of the driving factors in seeking addiction treatment, as rates of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) enrollment rose. Single-day counts for 2015 found that there were 17,670 people enrolled in methadone treatment, and there were 2,922 people enrolled in buprenorphine treatment.

While Florida is notorious for its tough punishments for breaking strict drug laws, the state also pioneered drug courts. Rather than sending offenders to prison, where they would suffer withdrawal symptoms without much medical oversight, Florida’s drug courts funneled many of those who were found guilty of possession, driving under the influence (DUI), and similar crimes into treatment programs. As of July 2018, there are 94 drug courts in operation in the state, including 46 adult felony courts, 7 for adult misdemeanors, 22 for juveniles, 15 for family dependency issues, and 4 for DUIs. There is a lot of debate across the nation regarding the efficacy of the drug court system, but it is one method to get people suffering from addiction the treatment they need.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health (SAMH) Program is managed by the Florida Department of Children and Families. This program offers education, treatment, crisis services, prevention programs, and other information about substance abuse in the state. Their help understanding and finding treatment has helped thousands of Floridians. They also have an updated list of treatment providers available, so you can search by city.

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