Two more things to blame on the lousy economy: greater stress, and more drug and alcohol abuse.
The 4-year-old Great Recession has caused more unemployment which, according to Tri County Substance Abuse's Mell Williams, led to more drug use. Unemployment also reduced Florida state revenue, which led to a reduction in outpatient funding for drug and alcohol treatment programs, and that led to a doubling in Marchman Act commitments.
According to the Highlands County Clerk of Court's office, 392 citizens were involuntarily committed to substance abuse programs through the Marchman Act in 2011. However, in the first quarter of 2012 alone, the number zoomed to 177. If commitments proceed at the same rate, they'll reach 766.
"They can't find a job," Williams said he's learning from clients who wind up in jail. So, to escape the stress, people are turning to doctors. When that doesn't work, they're finding drugs on the streets.
Oxycodone is the drug of choice, from Kathy Whitlock's point of view at the Highlands County court clerk's office.
More than 60 percent -- Williams contends the number is actually higher -- of prisoners are actually jailed because of drug problems.
Capt. Tim Lethbridge, in charge of investigations for the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, said prescriptions are a constantly increasing segment of the drug market.
"People view them as safer, but the painkillers have a tremendous addiction factor," Lethbridge said.
The prescriptions aren't coming from one doctor or one city, they're coming from a variety of sources, including people who go doctor shopping for pills.
The reason Marchman Act cases have doubled is just as complicated, said Whitlock, who handles the court petitions.
"Judges are being stricter with mental and juvenile cases. And they're having more success."
Because of the effects of the drugs, substance abusers lose their ability to make rational decisions about their care. Therefore, Marchman Act petitions are usually filed by family members, asking the court Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada to commit someone who cannot handle his or her drug problem.
"We have repeat offenders all the time," Whitlock said. She's followed some cases for years. Some petitions are contested. Accused abusers hire their own lawyers or ask for a conflict counsel. They can't be appointed a public defender because Marchman Act cases are civil, not criminal.
The judge can send an abuser to Tri County Human Services' detox center in Bartow for five days, where they may meet Margo Fleisher, the program supervisor.
After that assessment, the abuser will return to the judge, who may require more inpatient or outpatient treatment, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Marchman Act statistics are going up all over the 10th circuit -- which includes Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, Fleisher said. "What's really driving substance abuse is stress, often traumatic stress."
Everyone deals with stress at jobs, school and at home. Traumatic stress is physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, the incarceration of a relative, etc.
Another reason, according to Judge Estrada: "There is more awareness now from family members. They're more attuned to behavioral changes. A kid who is an honor student is acting bizarre. There are changes in food, clothing, behavior, and they are starting to see signs of substance abuse. They want to stop it before it turns tragic.
Marchman Act clients can't be committed to mental health programs. "It doesn't make inpatient treatment available if it's not already," Fleisher said.
However the Marchman Act does make abusers accountable to the courts. "It allows family members to be family and not police or probation officers," Fleisher said. The Florida Legislature recognized that an avenue for intervention (without criminal penalty) was necessary to protect society and the impaired individual.
Whitlock invites people who need help with the Marchman Act to come to her office.
"We can talk to them and explain. It happens to everyone," Whitlock said. "Just getting the nerve to do it, it's very stressful. It's their children or husband or mother."
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