Sally Jamiel sat on the steps of the Pasco County Courthouse one Easter weekend waiting for her bubbly, outgoing daughter Sharlene to walk up.
It was normal for Sharlene to take hours getting dressed, applying her make-up and fixing her hair.
“Any minute now,” Jamiel thought.
She sat with an Easter basket in her hand, filled with her daughter’s favorite things - chocolate ducks, Cadbury and Reese’s eggs - and tried to stay positive.
Jamiel sat there for four hours, waiting, thinking, hoping.
“I was going to do whatever it was to save her because she’s my daughter,” Jamiel resolved.
Sharlene never showed up for her court order for a charge of possession of oxycodone. Her mother’s hope had turned into hopelessness.
The 24-year old had stopped being the confident, outgoing University of Tampa college student on her way to becoming a successful international business representative. She rarely took the time to doll herself up like she used to. She spent most of her time crouched on the floor popping oxycodone and a cocktail of otherprescription drugs. She was an addict.
The next time Jamiel saw her daughter was after her May 6, 2009 arrest.
“Our family was falling apart, it really was,” Jamiel remembered.
On Mother’s Day in 2007 Jamiel noticed her jewelry was missing. She asked Sharlene if she had taken it and got a flat “no”. Jamiel spent the next few days driving around New Port Richey pawnshops buying back her jewelry.
Some items, which were passed down from her mother, were never retrieved. “That’s when I knew she had a problem,” Jamiel said, “She wasn’t my Sharlene-ee anymore.”
There were arguments. Doors were slammed. Sisters yelled at each other. There were five stints in rehab. The once-united family that moved from Rhode Island in search of paradise was then divided.
In 2009, Sharlene finally went “oxy-clean.” Since her two month jail sentence she’s been clean and sober. It was that same year that 2,488 people died from prescription drug related deaths in the state of Florida.
“She’s lucky, she’s alive,” Jamiel said.
Everyday Jamiel is reminded of the struggle it took to get there.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, one year and 10 months after her family’s ordeal came to an end, Jamiel pointed out the scars left behind. Those are burn marks from smoking oxycodone, she said, pointing to clusters of black burn spots on the carpet of Sharlene’s old room.
A tablecloth covered the burns on the dresser. “This was all new furniture.”
As Jamiel entered the bathroom, she looked down to black spots on the white tile and toilet seat that were remnants of her daughter’s dark days.
“She would come in here and use,” Jamiel said.
After battling with her daughter’s addiction, Jamiel made it her mission to bring awareness to the prescription drug abuse problem in Tampa Bay. She now advocates that lawmakers approve a state that would track patients’ prescription history and the doctors dispensing them.
Although the PDMP was approved by state legislators in 2009, budgetary constraints failed to push it through. A non-profit established to raise money to support the program raised $1.2 million, but use of that money for the program has been stalled in the bidding process. At one point, Gov. Rick Scott wanted legislators to repeal the law.
That’s what brought Jamiel to a March 3 Town Hall meeting in Pinellas County where Capt. Robert Alfonsohead of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Narcotics Division Diversion Task Force gave staggering statistics.
In Florida an average of seven people die from prescription drug overdoses every day. In 2009, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties had 938 deaths related to prescription drugs like alprazolam, diazepam, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine and propoxyphene.
Jamiel now tells her daughter’s story to anyone who listens.
She wants lawmakers to hear it and put laws into place to prevent it from happening to other families.
“What do you do for your child if you don’t have money to put them in a drug program? What are the resources out there for that? How do you report a doctor if you think they are prescribing too much?” Jamiel asked.
“I’m on a mission … I’m not going to give up on that.”
In the last four years law enforcement agencies have designated narcotic detectives to focus on the growing trend of prescription pain pill abuse and trafficking.
The battle involves law enforcement officials, doctors, users and dealers.
According to the Florida Governor's Office, 98 of the top 100 doctors who dispense oxycodone nationally, are concentrated in Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
“Florida is titled the Colombia of prescription drugs in the U.S.,” Alfonso said.
To target this epidemic, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office established a Diversion Task Force, which includes 16 detectives and officials from Pinellas and Pasco Counties.
Major Donna Lusczynski, of the Hillsborough Special Investigations Division, said narcotic detectives work tirelessly through undercover operations to stop prescription pain pill trafficking.
These agencies had to do something because of the staggering number of deaths related to prescription drug abuse, reported by the Florida Medical Examiner’s Office.
In the first six months of 2010, 715 people died from oxycodone overdoses, Alfonso said. The previous year 1,185 people had died.
“We know and suspect that there are more deaths that occur out of the state of Florida, that are not even attributed. That’s our main concern, people are losing their lives,” Lusczynski said.
To get a handle on the epidemic in Hillsborough County, the sheriff’s office initiated a county ordinance that restricted the number of clinics. “That has assisted us greatly,” Lusczynski said. About five years ago when Hillsborough began actively targeting pain clinics through undercover investigations and in 2010 when they spearheaded a county ordinance regulating these clinics, they went from 76 registered pain clinics to 46.
“It’s [pain clinics] not limited to a geographical area … it’s across the board. We see it from one end of the county to the other,” Lusczynski explained.
Alfonso said the Pinellas County Narcotics Division’s focus has shifted from illicit drugs like heroin to prescription pills.
“We still see cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana in Pinellas County, but our primary focus has become theprescription medication problem. Those are the pills that are hitting the streets,” Alfonso said.
Hillsborough County shares that trend.
Gov. Scott recently placed $800,000 in federal grant money to a Statewide Drug Task Force that will provide intelligence and investigative support to local law enforcement agencies.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee and St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon were appointed as co-chairs to the Strike Force which addresses both illicit and prescription drugs.
After spending her 25th birthday in rehab, “Sharlene is doing fabulous,” says her mother. She’s working in Lakeland, has two puppies, lives on her own and looks forward to taking small steps like buying a car and going to a Backstreet Boys concert with her two sisters and mom.
“I didn’t give up on her,” Jamiel said.
She now waits for the phone to ring with a request for a speaking engagement or awareness event.
“Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll go,” Jamiel said.
She works with several advocacy groups in educating the public on the dangers of prescription pain pills and speaks out against pill mills in Tampa Bay.
“What’s happened in our family, I don’t want ever to happen to anyone else.”
Timeline of Recent Prescription Drug-Related Events in Tampa Bay
- Manatee County 2010:
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office made 346 prescription drug related arrests and seized 7,128 prescriptions. In the last two years the number of arrests and prescription drug confiscated increases. In 2009 they made 177 arrests and seized 4,364. In 2008 there were 153 arrests and 3,742 prescriptions seized.
- Hillsborough County February 3, 2011:
Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Division arrest more than 85 people on prescription drug trafficking and doctor shopping. They closed seven pain clinics in Tampa, Brandon and Plant City.
- Largo March 2011:
Largo Police narcotics detectives charged eight suspects for Oxycodone trafficking in March. From January to March, they charged 51 suspects with possession of Oxycodone and 63 for trafficking Oxycodone.
- Pasco County March 2011:
Pasco Sheriff’s patrol deputies responded in 2010 to 327 incidents related to prescription fraud, a 63.5 percent rise over 2009’s numbers. They responded to 47 cases in which which prescription drugs were the target, 11 more than in 2009. The cases above did not necessarily involve an arrest. The Pasco Vice and Narcotics unit made 1,254 arrests in 2010, and 64 percent of those cases involved prescription drugs.
- Dunedin March 8, 2011:
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office charged 33 of 94 suspects allegedly involved in a prescription drug trafficking ring during a sweep.
- Tarpon Springs April 1, 2011:
A six-month long investigation charged 12 of 34 suspects allegedly trafficking Oxycodone and crack cocaine. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s, Pasco County Sheriff’s and Tarpon Springs Police targeted street level dealers. A total of 79 charges were identified in the sweep.
- Seminole April 4, 2011:
A four month long investigation revealed that dentist Kevin O’Callaghan, of Largo, and Brian Hameroff, a podiatrist from St. Pere, were writing prescriptions to each other for 30 to 40 pills a week including hydrocodone, lorazepam and oxycodone, according to Pinellas County Sheriff's. Their Seminole practices were searched and they were charged with scheming to assist another person to obtain a controlled substance.