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Lee County pays to expand sheriff's narcotics unit

Sheriff Marceno.JPG
Lee County Sheriff's Office
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Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, Commissioner Ray Sandelli and Commissioner Brian Hamman at the LCSO news conference in reference to the expansion of the narcotics unit. The bigger unit is supposed to combat crimes related to drug and gang activity, and to reduce narcotic deaths.

The Lee Board of County Commissioners has approved $1.7 million to expand the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) Narcotics Unit.

Sheriff Carmine Marceno requested an increase in funding for the Lee Narcotics Enforcement Unit to combat crimes related to drug and gang activity. He also hopes to reduce the number of narcotic deaths in the county.

“Our battle against drug dealers as it stands today has been very successful,” Marceno said. “But expanding our narcotics unit will lead to even greater success.”

With the new funding, the narcotics unit will be almost doubled in size, increasing the operation from 26 to 46 certified employees. The additional 20 new hires will be broken up into groups. A group will have five people: one sergeant and four detectives.

Resident of Lee County Rosa Lopez said she would feel safer knowing that there would be more detectives in the community trying to crack down on drug activity.

“It just seems like everywhere, no matter what neighborhood you're in, it just seems like there's more crime going up,” Lopez said.

Other residents, like Evan Alexoudis, disagree about feeling safer.

“These activities are always going to go on behind closed doors,” Alexoudis said. “So who are we to say if we feel safer or not because it could be happening right next door to you, and you'd never know.”

Sheriff Marceno said that keeping the community safe is his priority, and county commissioners support his message.

“Our message has been crystal clear all year that we are tough on crime here in Lee County,” Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass said. “We will continue to fund public safety and make sure our residents are safe." The commissioners approved the extra money on March 1.

Sheriff Marceno attributed the increase in drug activity in the county to population growth and an open Mexican border.

“As the population increases, so does the calls for service,” Marceno said. “Beyond that, we see a lot of drugs coming in through the borders. The Mexican border - it’s wide open.”

Lee resident Rosa Lopez agreed.

“It's not only people from Mexico that are bringing over drugs, but people from other countries are using the Mexican border to come over and do the same,” Lopez said.

Evan Alexoudis said that drug activity will remain an issue regardless of where the drugs come from or how they get here.

“I feel like the drugs can really come from anywhere,” Alexoudis said. “It's not really from one area; once they're in the country, they're in the country and they're going to be pushed around the country no matter what.”

Lee County has had the lowest crime rate in the state of Florida for nine years in a row, according to State Attorney Amira Fox.

However Lee County was not spared in the opioid epidemic, which has cost many lives in Lee and nationwide.

In 2019, there were 118 cases of overdose deaths in Lee County. The next year deaths rose to 166 and then to 190 in 2021. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office said it is expecting to see more than 200 overdose deaths this year.

The LCSO has seized over 17.7 kilos – roughly 39 pounds – of cocaine, which is a 478% increase since 2020, according to the Sheriff.

The sheriff's office also said it seized more than 10,000 grams of crystal meth and more than 6.5 kilos – roughly 14 pounds – of fentanyl. That is a 352% increase of crystal meth and a 265% increase of fentanyl since 2020.

“We will not tolerate those thugs that want to push poison on our streets,” Marceno said.

Some people say the issue can be seen two ways: how one deals with drug dealers, and then how one deals with drug users.

“It'll be helpful just because police will be taking more people off the streets that are selling these harmful drugs in our community,” Evan Alexoudis said. “But it doesn't really help with the amount of users or the people that are addicted to these substances.”

Alexoudis has had loved ones deal with opioid addiction and he has seen the effects of substance use disorder (SUD) firsthand. He said as long as there is a demand for these substances, there will be a supply.

When faced with an issue as large as substance abuse and drug trafficking, the question arises: what is best - enforcement or treatment?

Rosa Lopez said the additional law enforcement to hold drug dealers accountable is one way to solve the issue. However, while Lopez says the expansion of the narcotics unit will be helpful, she says it is not the only answer.

“Other solutions would be having some more substance abuse programs available to the inmates in jail,” Lopez said. “Anything that helps with sobriety.”

She added that the best option would be a mix of the two: enforcement and treatment.

“When they start going to court, get them involved in a drug court program, get them involved with resources in the jail that can help them,” Lopez said. “People with dependency problems need to get help in jail before they come out.”

Alexoudis said that more funding should go toward treatment and rehabilitation centers.

“I think that's what people need more so than just being punished for their addictions, which they shouldn't be,” Alexoudis said. “The drugs themselves have a very powerful effect on the person's mind and their decisions every day and how they interact with people.”

There is a biology of addiction, according to the National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human services. The pleasure derived from opioids’ activation of the brain’s natural reward system promotes continued drug use during the initial stages of opioid addiction. As repeated exposure occurs, the brain begins to become dependent, leading to daily drug use to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

“There is no one size fits all answer to approaching substance use disorder,” Whitney Hughston, the business development manager for Groups Recover Together, said.

Groups Recover Together is located in North Fort Myers and delivers opioid addiction recovery services that are proven to help individuals get their lives back on track. The organization said it provides fast and easy access to medication-assisted treatment, using Suboxone, group therapy and care navigation for case management. It also has a program to build a sense of community and accountability.

Suboxone is a combination medication containing buprenorphine and naloxone and is one of the main medications used to treat opioid addiction. Buprenorphine and methadone, another drug to assist in opioid addiction, are essential medicines, according to the World Health Organization.

Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction remains the gold standard of care, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Alexoudis said people addicted to drugs are dealing with a disease, and some may have committed crimes only because of that disease.

“We have to look at that as well when taking an approach to taking drugs off the street and helping people because there are people that simply are so far gone into their drug usage that they can't just help themselves,” Alexoudis said.

When it comes to the question of which deserves more funding; enforcement or treatment, many believe both are useful in steps to decrease drug activity and narcotic deaths.

“It’s a very bad cycle because once they get in the system, it's very hard for a lot of people to get out,” Lopez said. “There's not enough resources and not enough help. There's not enough.”

Groups Recover Together said both avenues of enforcement and treatment are using every resource available to try to protect people from the devastation of SUD.

“Both of these avenues are sorely lacking in support, resources and funding,” Hughston said. “The more we can collaborate across all agencies, the better chance we have of helping those in need with SUD.”