Symposium focuses attention on local drug problem

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee Substance Abuse Coalition sponsored a Drug Abuse Symposium on June 21, at the Okeechobee Freshman Campus.

Authorities agreed that Okeechobee has a drug problem and more must be done if the community is to win the problem.

The causes of the drug problem were listed as a lack of public awareness, a chaotic home environment, ineffective parenting, approval of drug use especially marijuana, peer pressure, a lack of involved parents, and a lack of knowledge about the real dangers of drugs.

Drug Enforcement Agent in Charge (DEA) Sheldon Burkett said new approaches must be used by law enforcement and the community if we are to get the problem under control.

Keynote speaker Jackie Morales of Crosswalk Ministries has been clean from drugs for 13 years. She came from a good home with great values. She grew up in church. She was involved with sports and the fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“I also had a double life,” she said. “I was drinking every time I was allowed out of my house. There was nothing to do in Okeechobee and we drank all the time.”

She started to use marijuana, and said she was so stoned at graduation that she can’t remember that day.

She was introduced to cocaine and went downhill quickly from there.

“It was on after I used cocaine,” she said. “I was eventually arrested and had never had a speeding ticket. Here I was in jail with a $150,000 bond. My family didn’t even know that I was doing drugs.”

She said God got her attention in jail and she gained strength from others who shared the gospel with her. She often focused on Jeremiah 29:11 which states

“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

She later became a thief to feed her habit. She also was involved in serious car accident.

She now works with jail inmates to try and help those that are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

She said many jail inmates leave jail and are back with their old friends and habits.

“I see a great need in our community for transition homes,” she said. “These ladies don’t know how to wear makeup correctly or dress themselves modestly.”

Congressman Tom Rooney said 44 people die daily in the United States due to drug overdoses. He said drug abuse has impacted the middle class more than ever before.

“Something is going wrong here and it’s a problem that we have to solve together,” he said.

Sheriff Paul May said his agency has investigated more street heroin lately and still have a number of prescription pill problems.

“Pills were very easy to get and they were cheap five to six years ago. You could get them anywhere in Okeechobee,” he said.

He said the pills began to get more expensive and that led to an increase in heroin and opioids.

He mentioned the largest methamphetamine bust ever in Okeechobee.

“Every time we get a handle on something, something else comes up,” the sheriff said.

He said Flakka does not seem to be a problem any longer. He said his task force stays up on the drug trends.

Agent Burkett spoke about the pill mill shutdown in South Florida. Eight clinics were shut down by his DEA office. He said pharmacies are more diligent when they dispense prescriptions today. He said many people became addicted to opioids. He said he’s not surprised by the switch to heroin because the drug is much less expensive.

“The days of pharmacies filling prescriptions of 360 oxycodone pills are over,” he added.

“Our job is not to take away people’s pain medication away. We want to take it away from the 21 year old who is addicted to pain pills. There is a place for pain medication,” he said. “There has to be some due diligence to make sure we just don’t prescribe these things just to create addicts.”

He said heroin is considered the Cadillac of pain pills.

Okeechobee County Judge Jerry Bryant said his drug court program has made a difference in Okeechobee. He said there have been 316 total graduates in the program. He said the rate of reoffending is less than 26 percent and the savings is significant, between $3,000 and $13,000 per defendant. He said $1 spent in drug court, saves $27 in the community. Some 75 percent of the graduates have remained arrest free for at least two years. Judge Bryant lobbied for more funding to expand drug court programs.

“Drug dealers are the problem. Drug users have a problem. Drug addicts have very little congratulations or support,” he said.

Judge Bryant maintains that the sheriff’s office and city police could arrest people with drugs at the main intersection 24 hours per day in Okeechobee.

He said methamphetamine is an epidemic in Okeechobee.

He said he heard more comments about drugs arrests when the Okeechobee Music Festival was held and scratched his head because that was just a chip of the ice berg.

“They had 90 drug arrests at the Okeechobee Music Festival. I said our drug task force, if they used K-9s at the red light and walked edaround and air sniffed they could arrest that many in Okeechobee in two hours,” he said.

With all of the drug abuse in the county, he said it was puzzling for local people to be so “worried about 90 arrests out there in the woods.”

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy said drug use has increased in the school system among students. During the 2014-2015 school year, 31 students received referrals for drug sale or possession. That number increased to 39 students in 2015-2016.

The Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey in 2014 found that more people approve of smoking marijuana than they do cigarettes. He said the district has a higher absentee rate, more dropouts, and lower grades among students that do drugs. Random drug tests were given to 136 students last year and three tested positive.

Agent Burkett said he is very concerned about the ‘cavalier attitude’ the youth have about drugs. He said marijuana is bad for you, addictive and has side effects.

“It harms your brain, and it will mess up your life,” he said.

Dr. Jay Kuchera said the Center for Disease Control has ruled opioids as a crisis in the United States. He said there are more overdose deaths than fatal car crashes. Prescription overdoses increased by 400 percent between 1997 and 2007. He said pain has become the fifth vital sign. Heroin deaths increased by 14 percent in 2014 in the U.S. There was an 80-percent increase in fentanyl overdoses. He said people can go on line and purchase fentanyl from China. There are newer drugs that make fentanyl look like Tylenol.

He also spoke on the use of naloxone by first responders that can help save the lives of people who have overdosed on drugs.

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