Since 2009, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) has partnered with Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE) of Pinellas to help reduce the number of overdoses in the community and raise awareness on the dangers of substance abuse. Although the annual candlelight vigil was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, the effort to save lives continues through education in local schools and in the community by reducing the sale of narcotics through investigation and enforcement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are the primary driver of overdose deaths in the United States. Since 2018, there have been a total of 1,328 opioid-related deaths in Pinellas County. Furthermore, the average number of deaths per day has increased and is continuing to rise. During peak months in 2018, there was an average of 23.3 deaths per month. Most recently, that number has grown to 41.4 deaths per month. In addition, 239 people died from opioid use in 2018, and this year to date, there have been more than 300 deaths.

Some drug users are aware of the risks involved, says Corporal Joe Miner who serves in the Narcotics Division, however, many are not and could unknowingly take a lethal dose of fentanyl. According to the CDC, there was a 55.6 percent increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2020 in the United States, largely due to these hidden substances.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid typically used to treat patients with chronic severe pain or severe pain following surgery,” Corporal Miner said. “Under the supervision of a licensed medical professional, fentanyl has a legitimate medical use. However, fentanyl is being mixed in with other illicit drugs to increase potency, and it is being sold as powders, nasal sprays, and increasingly pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription opioids. Unfortunately, because there is no official oversight or quality control, these counterfeit pills often contain lethal doses of fentanyl with none of the promised drugs. Drug trafficking organizations typically distribute fentanyl by the kilogram, and just one kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill half a million people.”

The Narcotics Division aims to reduce the sale of fentanyl and other drugs in Pinellas County by identifying transactions and shutting down the supply chain. Recently, on September 16, 2021, narcotics detectives arrested four suspects and seized large amounts of narcotics, including 256 grams of cocaine, $140,000, and nine firearms. (Click here to read news release.)

While detectives work hard to prevent the sale of drugs in Pinellas County, School Resource Officers (SRO) participate in NOPE presentations in local schools to educate youth about the dangers of using drugs.

“NOPE of Pinellas strongly believes our national drug epidemic needs to be fought by everyone within the community, not just by those families suffering from the consequences of drug addiction,” Founder Laurie Serra said. “How can we all fight? First, through drug education for ourselves and our children, starting with two-way conversations at home between parents and their children. These conversations should occur consistently throughout the late elementary, middle, and high school years.”

While Serra says they are hoping to bring the NOPE Candlelight Vigil back in 2022, the team is currently focusing on conducting presentations in schools with the assistance of PCSO deputies. Although the method of delivery to students has changed, the NOPE message has remained the same. Presentations include local families sharing their personal stories of how drug use, specifically opioid use, has impacted their families, along with a deputy from the PCSO sharing their perspective.

Presentations also include discussions on addiction, the signs of overdose, how drug experimentation can cost you your life, the dangers involved in combining drugs, and how important it is to immediately seek help for any individual showing signs of overdose.

During the 2020-2021 school year, NOPE of Pinellas in partnership with PCSO deputies have been sharing an informational video, called “Face It,” with all middle and high school students who are first-time offenders of drug or alcohol abuse.

One Pinellas middle school student heard the NOPE presentation and weeks later was with a friend when she overdosed. The girl picked up the phone and called 911. She later shared with her school’s SRO that it was thanks to the NOPE presentation that she knew the signs of overdose. As a result, her friend survived.

“Almost everyone knows someone within their immediate or extended family who has battled addiction,” Serra said. “Many have felt shame and have chosen to keep addiction issues secret. NOPE believes that it is vital for adult family members to open up with their kids about any family history with addiction as we strive to educate the next generation. Knowing that addiction runs in families, parents need to be real with their children, believing that as they share stories and are approachable, in turn, kids will be more open to come to their parents with questions about drugs and other substance abuse issues.”