Pensacola is a city in Florida’s Panhandle, the northwestern Escambia County area along the Gulf of Mexico. It is close to Florida’s border with Alabama. As a tourist destination, Pensacola is renowned for beautiful white sand beaches, excellent food, and its rich history as one of the first colonial cities, founded in 1559.
As a major city, the area is home to several military families, thanks to the Naval Air Station, and to the famous Blue Angels aerobatics team. The area is on the smaller side for cities, with close to 52,000 people living in the urban and suburban areas. However, like most other cities in the US, Pensacola is no stranger to substance abuse problems.
Escambia County itself is Florida’s 20th most populous area and home to 1.5 percent of Florida’s population. Unfortunately, like the rest of the state, Pensacola and Escambia County have seen an increase in substance abuse, especially involving designer drugs and opioids. A 2014 survey of Escambia County residents found that 6.8 percent of those surveyed thought drug addiction and substance abuse was one of the leading problems to address in the Pensacola area.
Drug Crimes in Pensacola and Escambia County
Law enforcement in Escambia County reported that 17.1 percent of new commitments in 2015 involved drug crimes of some sort. This was a decrease compared to the previous year, in which 19.4 percent of all new commitments involved drugs. The main reason for arrest and incarceration was drug possession, which made up 42.2 percent of the drug-based commitments in Escambia County in 2015.
Like the rest of Florida, alcohol abuse, especially through binge drinking and heavy drinking, is prominent in Escambia County. Overall, 15 percent of adults engage in this problematic behavior, which can cause esophageal, stomach, and liver cancer; cirrhosis; and memory trouble, among many other chronic health problems.
While synthetic cathinones like flakka are not a huge reported problem in the Pensacola area, and are more prevalent in southern Florida, Escambia County officers report finding labs that produce bath salts and spice – a synthetic cathinone and cannabinoid, respectively – in northwestern Florida.
Pensacola’s Youth Are Abusing Substances Less than in Previous Years
The 2014 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey (FYSAS) for Escambia County surveyed 1,633 students in 6th-12th grade. Lifetime substance abuse among the whole survey group found that:
- 1 percent of students abused alcohol and 16.3 percent reported blacking out from drinking too much
- 8 percent abused marijuana
- 6 percent abused inhalants
- 6 percent also abused synthetic marijuana, including Spice
- 2 percent abused prescription painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone
- 6 percent abused other depressants, such as benzodiazepines
- 5 percent abused over-the-counter drugs, like dextromethorphan cough syrup
- 8 percent abused prescription amphetamines, like Adderall or Ritalin
- 3 percent abused hallucinogens, including shrooms and LSD
- 4 percent abused club drugs, like MDMA or ketamine
- 2 percent abused cocaine or crack cocaine
- 1 percent abused meth
- 6 percent abused heroin
- 3 percent abused steroids without a prescription
Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among Escambia’s middle and high school students. Not only does it have the highest lifetime rate, but over 19 percent of students surveyed in 2014 reported they had abused alcohol in the past month. Marijuana was the second highest, with 11.3 percent of students admitting to past-month abuse.
Although these rates are too high, the county’s students are abusing alcohol and drugs less overall since 2004. In that year, about 20 percent of middle school and almost 50 percent of high school students reported past-month alcohol consumption. In the past decade, those percentages have dropped considerably, and they are even slightly less than the Florida state average.
Marijuana abuse among middle and high school students has followed a similar trend. In 2004, about 7 percent of middle schoolers, and over 20 percent of high schoolers, abused marijuana in the past month; by 2014, those percentages had dropped lower than the Florida state average. Abuse of inhalants, over-the-counter drugs, depressants, and prescription drugs has also declined among students in Escambia County since 2004.
However, a large number of Escambia County students are at risk of serious physical harm in a car accident: 21.5 percent of high school students have ridden in a vehicle with a driver under the influence of alcohol, and 24.8 percent have ridden in a car with someone under the influence of marijuana.
Drug Overdose Deaths in Pensacola Predominantly Involve Polydrug Abuse
Escambia County worked with task forces across the state to eliminate pill mills, starting in 2010. These facilities were considered too liberal with prescribing practices, especially around opioid drugs, contributing to a steep rise in addiction, overdose, and death. However, overdoses are still on the rise across the county. Both 2016 and 2017 were deadly years for Pensacola residents, as heroin deaths hit an all-time high twice.
The 2015 Florida Medical Examiner’s Report maintains an annual record of drugs involved in death, including ethanol (alcohol), amphetamines, benzodiazepines, inhalants, hallucinogens, opioids, and “other” (cocaine, ketamine, synthetic cannabinoids, and synthetic cathinones). The report found that, compared to the first half of 2014, all drug-related deaths increased 13.9 percent; 2,548 people died with one or more prescription drug in their system, and of those, 1,155 individuals were found to have a prescription drug overdose as the cause of their death. These drugs continue to be a greater cause of overdose death than illicit drugs in Florida in general.
The five most frequently found drugs were:
However, opioid drugs including heroin, fentanyl, methadone, and morphine, as well as cocaine, were found to cause death in half of the cases where the drugs were found in the deceased’s body. Occurrence of heroin in overdose deaths increased 107.9 percent from 2014, and fentanyl occurrences increased 97.5 percent. Deaths caused by fentanyl increased 105 percent.
Escambia County is part of the FME’s District 1, which covers all the northwestern Panhandle. The FME’s primary area in District 1 is, of course, Pensacola, which is the largest city in the area. In District 1, drugs involved in deaths included the following:
- Alprazolam was involved in 33 total deaths, of which 20 were caused by an overdose on the benzodiazepine; however, alprazolam was never the sole cause of death.
- Diazepam was found in six deaths, causing four; however, like alprazolam, diazepam was never the sole cause of death.
- Oxycodone was involved in 19 deaths, causing 13; it was the sole cause of death in one person.
- Hydrocodone was present in 23 deaths, causing 11; it was the only drug leading to overdose for one person.
- Methadone was found in 11 deaths, causing six of those; however, it was not the sole cause of death in any instance.
- Morphine was involved in 23 overdose deaths and caused 16 of those; however, like methadone, morphine was not the cause of death for any individual.
- Fentanyl was involved in 11 overdose deaths, causing nine; it, too, was always in combination with other drugs and was not the sole cause of overdose.
- Heroin was found in 13 overdose deaths, causing 12 of those; again, like other opioids, it was not the sole cause of overdose death for any instance and was always in combination with other drugs.
- Cocaine was, surprisingly, involved in 33 deaths and responsible for 11 of those; however, it was not the cause of death alone.
Help Overcoming Substance Abuse for Pensacola’s Residents
The Marchman Act, or the Florida Substance Abuse Impairment Act, governs both voluntary and involuntary commitment to treatment programs to overcome addiction. The law covers placing an individual in a treatment program as part of their incarceration or in a hospital if a law enforcement officer believes their behavior puts the individual and/or others at risk. While there is debate about the efficacy of this law in Florida, the underlying intent is to get people struggling with dangerous, addictive drugs the treatment they need to overcome substance abuse.
Although adolescents and young adults are abusing substances less than middle-aged and older adults, thanks to prevention efforts and education programs, residents in Pensacola still need access to addiction treatment. The Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR) and the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) maintain high standards for recovery programs, requiring specific safety and efficacy standards to be met before a rehabilitation program can be certified. The organizations compile a list of certified recovery programs, which can be found on the DCF website.
The University of West Florida endeavors to maintain student safety and health by promising a drug-free campus. For students attending this Pensacola-based school, the Student Health Center offers referrals to counseling and rehabilitation programs to help students overcome addiction. Employees of the school who may struggle with substance abuse problems can get help through the university’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides an online treatment finder that can narrow down options for detox and rehabilitation based on area. The government organization also offers a hotline to call if a person is in crisis and needs help finding services immediately.
Psychology Today keeps lengthy, up-to-date lists of behavioral treatment providers based on location. For Pensacola, drug and alcohol treatment can be narrowed down by detox, rehabilitation, inpatient, outpatient, length of stay, and many other factors.
With several navy families in Pensacola, the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA) can help residents of Escambia County manage their veterans’ benefits if they belonged to the military. The VA offers several mental and behavioral health programs, which cover substance abuse and addiction treatment.
The Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association (FADAA) keeps resources on their website to help those who worry about substance abuse signs in their loved ones or who are seeking help overcoming substance abuse.