Hillsborough group remembers victims of drug abuse, tries to curb addiction

10/25/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: drugs, pill mills, prescription drugs, drug abuse, NOPE, Kevin Beckner


Photos of people who died from drug related causes lined the wall of a community center in West Tampa during a candle light vigil.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Family members of people who have died from drug overdoses or other narcotic-related tragedy and some recovering addicts came together Thursday night to pay tribute to those who have lost their battles with addiction. During a candlelight vigil at a community center in West Tampa, a 15-foot long wall was lined with picture after picture of people who have died in Hillsborough County alone. Michele Phillips’ son was one of those photos.

“There’s never going to be anything that fills that hole, but by not staying quiet and burying it inside ourselves it gives us an opportunity to be family to so many more.”

Her son died of a prescription drug overdose in 2007 when he was 14-years old. Phillips decided to start a Hillsborough chapter of the group NOPE – Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education. The group is in its third year of organizing educational outreach events at local schools to try to persuade teens to just say no.

“Besides having family speakers and Jamie being their age and has actually played against them in football, he’s connecting with them at that point. We play a mother’s 911 call when she’s found her son dead. We show death scene photos. We display body bags. We don’t pull punches.”

Jamie is Phillips’ younger son. Now 16, he was only ten when his brother died.

“There [were] times that me and him were alone and he would smoke a cigarette and he’d be like, ‘don’t tell mom,’ you know – typical brother thing. He had started playing football. My brother was humungous. He was 6’2”, 220 pounds at 14 years old. He was a big kid going to play football. So, I’m thinking by brother might have a chance to play football in college and the NFL and I wanted to start doing that. We never expected that anything like this would ever happen from him. It just came out of nowhere. It surprised us.”

The group also reaches out to those who are still recovering from addiction to share their stories. Eric Sims says he had 21 very dark years where his abuse only got worse. He said he doesn’t know exactly when he realized he was an addict, but thinks it happened during one of his stints in the Pinellas County jail.

“It wasn’t just that because I’d been to jail numerous times and I had been in more trouble than I was in at that time, but I think it was, at that moment, all the delusions and illusions were broken. No longer did I have anybody support me, nobody bail me out. All of the co-dependents that I had wrapped around me to protect me were all sick and fed up with it. It was just me and helpless.”

The group United for Care is trying to force a ballot initiative in Florida to legalize medical marijuana. It’s being headed up by Tampa Bay area attorney John Morgan. But this week, Florida attorney general Pam Bondi asked the state supreme court to look at the initiative arguing in a letter that it is deceitful. The group NOPE isn’t taking a direct stance on the measure, but Phillips says marijuana is still a narcotic and thus, something they are opposed to. Sims, the recovering addict asked to speak at the annual drug vigil, said he started using marijuana and it led to harder drugs.

“I don’t think that everybody that smokes marijuana is going to end up being a drug addict. But we don’t know how you get there. Again, it goes back to that point of, when is that line crossed? I’ve learned over the years that drugs weren’t my problem, drugs were my solution to the problem. My problem was much deeper than drugs and alcohol and it was only when I went down and addressed those deeper issues that I saw all of that stuff getting better. That was just one portion of what was going on, but I have to get off all the drugs and alcohol to work on the other stuff.”

The Hillsborough chapter of NOPE was able to get their initiative off the ground with the help of Hillsborough County. Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the county kicked in $50,000 of start up money to help them get started three years ago.

“Here in Hillsborough County we lose two to five people every day still from prescription drug overdoses. There’s over 15,000 Floridians who have lost their lives over a period of years and it’s just time that the community comes together and we have to work together to end the epidemic of prescription drug overdose.”

The county hasn’t contributed money since then, but Beckner said the county will continue to support the initiative in any way they can.

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Janelle, thank you very much for attending and listening to our stories. We have work to do, this battle is not yet over.