Gov. Rick Scott signs stricter opioid penalty bill among Central Florida’s law leaders in Orlando

Central Florida’s top law enforcement leaders joined with Gov. Rick Scott Thursday morning for a ceremonial signing of a bill that they hope will help crack down on the growing opioid crisis in the state.

House Bill 477 creates new penalties and enhances existing laws related to synthetic opioid drugs including fentanyl.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina said the law was born out of a heroin task force created in Orlando and Orange County in 2015. Previously, drug dealers with fentanyl could only be charged with possessing the drug. A trafficking statute didn’t apply to fentanyl like existing laws against cocaine and heroin. Trafficking charges carry harsher penalties than possession charges.

“We knew they were trafficking it … So they could have this deadly drug and lots and lots of it and still only be charged with fentanyl [possession],” Mina said.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said there has been more than a 100 percent increase in drug use and deaths related to opioids during the first six months of this year compared to the same time period last year.

The signing comes the same week that Mina issued a new directive for his officers in the way they should handle overdose cases, following the hospitalization of officers who became ill as they responded to the report of an overdose.

More than a dozen law enforcement officials stood with the governor for the signing.

The opioid crisis is “the most damning public safety crisis” in Central Florida, said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks.

“It’s not violent crime, it’s not even terrorism. It is opioid addiction. It is death due to opioid addiction and it affects nearly every family in Central Florida,” Banks said.

Not even the governor’s family was immune to the drug’s effects. Scott spoke candidly about his brother’s longtime drug addiction and the pain it caused his mother until her death five years ago.

“As a mom and as a dad you want all your children to be very successful,” Scott said. “My mom died five years ago and I know up to the day she died it was one of the issues that she struggled with the most — that she had a son that could not beat the addictions that he had.”

ktorralva@orlandosentinel.com or Twitter @KMTorralva