There sure seems to be a lot more of it on the streets if you look at the arrest reports around Niceville in the last month. By my count and the collective arrest records for Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Niceville Police and the Val-p PD, that’s what they are mainly picking up people for.
In 2016, when I started covering Okaloosa County for a local television station, Fentanyl busts made all of the main headlines. Those numbers are still high – but the epidemic on Niceville’s streets, or at least what everyone is getting arrested for, is Meth.
Here’s my evidence. We started tracking all of the arrests that have taken place in our area for just the last month. In That month, 30ish arrests total have been made. Of those arrests, eight of them have been for Meth possession or distribution – including a SWAT bust by Okaloosa County late in October.
But a month’s worth of data really isn’t enough to go on. It’s just a hunch, really.
So, I talked to several law enforcement members about what they see on the streets. I asked a couple of sheriff’s deputies off the record about the situation on background – they told me that the meth problem has to do with a local shortage of Fentanyl on the streets. When illicit drug users aren’t able to get one type of drug – they just switch to another. “They aren’t after a certain drug, they are chasing the high,” one deputy told me, “that’s why we are starting to see Narcan on the black market. They want to go all the way [with the drug] and then have their friends bring them back.” Narcan, for those who might not know, is the counteracting agent given to police, deputies, EMS and fire fighters to administer to overdosing drug users in order to save their life.
I had an email interview with Lt. Heath Hehl of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Investigations Section. Members of Hehl’s unit are heavy hitters. Sheriff Aden tasks them with “identifying, infiltrating, investigating, and dismantling criminal drug organizations operating in, or with a nexus to, Okaloosa County through the arrest of participants and the seizure of assets used or acquired in violation of the law.”
Like I said, heavy hitters.
He says that a couple of things are happening. First, there has been a significant uptick in pressed Fentanyl seizures throughout the country. When supply goes down, prices go up. When prices go up, addicts have to use something else.
At the same time, law enforcement has busted many clandestine meth laboratories in the past as well. It’s too risky to build a lab in our area for drug dealers. “Years ago, we would work (read: take out) several labs a week,” said Lt. Hehl, and we have not seen a lab in an extended period of time. This is due to crystal methamphetamine being readily available at a lower cost than seen in years past.”
When he says lower cost – he’s not kidding. Chief David Popwell of the Niceville Police Department says that most of the addicts are able to cook meth themselves in a meth lab made out of a Coca-Cola Bottle with ingredients from the pharmacy. They may not be able to produce on an industrial scale like in the past when meth labs became like moonshine stills in the area – but they can certainly produce enough for personal use.
Lt. Hehl provided some interesting demographics for meth use in the county. While he says that meth use has cut through every demographic in the county including race, gender and location – he notes that overdoses have disproportionately affected one group in particular throughout the county: white men. While white men are certainly a large proportion of the Okaloosa County population in general – they have a disproportionately high number of overdoses this year. 152 white men have overdosed in 2022 alone – about 58% of overdoses. White men make up roughly 40% of the total population of the county. Other groups noted by deputy Hehl, Black men and women, as well as Asian men and women, trended below their population percentages. Interestingly, white women made up about 30% of overdoses in Okaloosa County – about 10% less than you might expect, considering they also make up about 40% of Okaloosa County’s Population. Other races were at a similar percentage of overdoses regardless of sex.
Despite a lower number of fentanyl arrests in the Niceville area, Fentanyl continues to pose a similar threat to public safety as meth does, according to Lt. Hehl. “We are seeing a significant uptick in heroin/fentanyl use, specifically pressed fentanyl tablets that are designed to look like prescription tablets,” Hehl said.
Finally, as you might guess, meth and fentanyl have been recovered in arrests and raids throughout the county. The sheriff’s office continues to appeal for help from citizens and visitors to keep an eye out for drug activity. “We live in a great community that offers an unbelievable amount of support to our Law Enforcement Officers. The Okaloosa County Multi-Agency Drug Task Force relies heavily on our citizens to call in and report suspicious activity taking place. The Information provided has been critical in identifying narcotics distributors, their patterns of activity and the locations the activity is taking place. Those tips frequently lead to arrests or seizure of controlled substances.”
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