‘Better odds playing Russian Roulette’: Project Opioid JAX offers disturbing data about overdoses in Jacksonville

Project Opioid JAX presented disturbing data Wednesday about the opioid crisis in Jacksonville during a news conference on International Overdose Awareness Day that also honored those lost to overdose.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Project Opioid JAX presented disturbing data Wednesday about the opioid crisis in Jacksonville during a news conference on International Overdose Awareness Day that also honored those lost to overdose.

Representatives from the group said if we don’t act now, it will only get worse, as they launched new efforts toward the goal of ending overdose deaths.

New data released by Project Opioid on Wednesday showed overdose deaths increased 11% nationwide in 2021.

Project Opioid JAX presented disturbing data Wednesday about the opioid crisis in Jacksonville during a news conference on International Overdose Awareness Day that also honored those lost to overdose.

READ: The Changing Overdose Crisis in JAX community needs assessment report

Between December 2020 and December 2021 there were 538 overdose deaths in Duval County, a 3% increase from the year before, according to The Changing Overdose Crisis in JAX, the community needs assessment authored by Dr. Kendall Cortelyou, the interim director of the School of Global Health Management & Informatics at the University of Central Florida.

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“This is the most dangerous thing you can do right now,” Cortelyou said. “Two out of five pills seized by the DEA contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. You have better odds playing Russian Roulette -- literally. So you cannot take anything that you get off the street.”

Of the 421 deaths in Duval caused by fentanyl in 2021, 44% co-occurred with cocaine, 29% with ethanol, and 29% with methamphetamines.

They estimate 70% of the overdose deaths in 2021 -- fentanyl was the cause of death, which is an increase of over 950% since 2015.

“The data is clear -- fentanyl is killing people here and across the country,” said TJ Ward, North Florida Director of Advocacy for Project Opioid. “Fentanyl is incredibly dangerous. It’s showing up in other drugs and is taking precious lives in our community.”

To raise awareness, the Community Coalition Alliance, Project Opioid JAX and the North Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) announced a social media campaign targeted to teens and young adults. The social media campaign, Anything But Obvious, is designed to raise awareness about the dangers of taking any medication outside of what has been directly prescribed.

For example, key messaging includes statistics on the rise of mass-produced fake prescription drugs and that 40% of them carry a potentially lethal dose of a synthetic opioid like fentanyl.

Tony's family wants you to see his face and know his life was cut short. They do not want his death to be in vain. (WJXT)

Steve Betz, who lost his son Tony to overdose, and Rebecca Sheller, who lost her son Max to overdose, both spoke to honor their children and to share their stories in an effort to raise awareness.

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“I don’t want any family to endure what my family and I have endured the loss of a child,” Betz said.

Betz said his son loved his family, and his father now fights in his son’s honor -- hoping to get people to understand addiction.

“The majority of the people with this affliction don’t want it,” Betz said. “Tony and I spoke many, many times of just trying to get his life back the way it was. He didn’t want this. He had greater ambitions and goals. He just wanted to be himself again. So let’s stop the stigma attached to addiction.”

Sheller said she thought Max was in a phase.

“Lots of people can try a marijuana joint or a drink and be fine and not have to drink again and other people can’t stop,” Sheller said.

With new data and information, she said she’s learning that addiction is based on your DNA.

“And unfortunately, Max had that gene. So it’s not something he ever wanted. He fought addiction for years. And in the end, it got him,” Sheller said.

Max was five months sober when he died of a fentanyl overdose in March 2021. He was 24.

Max Sheller was just 24 years old when he died from a fentanyl overdose. (WJXT)

“We are grateful for Steve and Rebecca who continue to work to ensure our community is doing everything it can to end overdose deaths,” Ward said.

The data show 43 people died from a drug overdose each month between March 2020 and March 2021, and fentanyl is the No. 1 killer.

Sheller said she’s astounded by the numbers and number of people impacted every day.

“If we don’t get on this, we’re going to lose our whole entire country,” Sheller said. “Our children are being attacked, and we’ve got to fight back.”

Sheller encouraged parents to monitor where kids are spending money. She said dealers are everywhere online and on social media apps.

She thinks the most important thing to do is have conversations about drugs with your kids.

Michelle Holbrook joins us on The Morning Show to share her son's story and his battle with addiction.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • Opioid prescriptions are on the decline statewide, a 35% reduction from 2016 to 2020
  • Duval County opioid prescriptions are also down from 2016, but remain higher than the state and national average

“This data is critical to help direct funding and resources to meaningful solutions to end overdose deaths,” Cortelyou said. “This provides a roadmap for Project Opioid JAX and their partners to direct funding to where it can help the most people.”

TJ Ward, the North Florida Director of Advocacy for Project Opioid JAX, joins us to discuss how his organization is using social media to raise awareness and promote prevention of opioid overdoses.

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