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MOSI exhibit on toll of drug abuse taps into a mother's pain and mission

NORTH TAMPA — Among hundreds of portraits of dead drug abusers on the walls at the Museum of Science and Industry is the face of a woman with a captivating smile, trim eyebrows and auburn hair.

Jennifer Reynolds-Gonzalez died on Jan. 15, 2009, at age 29.

Her family wrote up a few brief words by her picture:

She was a daughter. Her family loves her forever.

But her mother is dying to say much more.

The exhibit, "Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause," presents the historical impact of illegal drugs in gripping fashion. The yearlong display is filled with hypodermic needles, crude drug labs, meth-cursed hotel rooms, terrorist faces and sad portraits of people who wasted away from drugs.

Haunting relics include car wreckage caused by drugs, ghostly abandoned tricycles and dirty glass bottles.

But it's the faces that stand out to many. Portraits of drug addicts hang on walls labeled "lost talent." Others, such as Reynolds-Gonzalez, are featured in sideshows labeled "lost potential."

She grew up in Largo, then went from apartments to hotel rooms in Tampa and other parts of the Tampa Bay area. When Sharon Blair learned that her daughter was part of the exhibit, she contacted local reporters. She saw it as another opportunity to promote her cause, the Jennifer Act.

For two years Blair has been pushing changes to the Marchman Act, which provides help for addicts. Blair, 54, lives part time in Bloomington, Ind., and in Clearwater, where she and her husband own a printing business. She is pushing for similar improvements in Indiana.

The Marchman Act is a broad 18-year-old Florida law that defines the rights of and state services available to drug users. Named after the Rev. Hal S. Marchman, an advocate for alcoholics and addicts, the law helps family members get substance abuse treatment for loved ones.

For 13 years, Blair tried to save her daughter, who began using drugs in high school. Jennifer was a cheerleader who was active in student government, but got caught up with older friends who introduced her to drugs. She smoked marijuana, dropped out of school, used cocaine and heroin, popped prescription pills, and went in and out of treatment centers. In response, Blair filed repeated Marchman Act petitions, found her treatment, watched her relapse, begged for state help and repeated the cycle.

She filed five Marchman Act petitions for Jennifer in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hardee counties and saw huge discrepancies in how counties handled the state law. Filing fees were free in one county, $300 in another. Some judges refused to order a drug assessment; others ordered Jennifer into outpatient treatment they couldn't enforce.

"It kept going on and on and on," Blair said. "She would get treatment, then she would relapse and she would get arrested and I'd go in front of the judge and I'd write everyone to help me because my child was dying."

After Jennifer died of an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers and other drugs, Blair couldn't turn away from her years of advocacy. She began looking at fixing flaws she saw in the Marchman Act.

The list of improvements she proposes in the Jennifer Act is long: Blair thinks filing fees should be the same across Florida. Law enforcement and judges should be educated about drug addiction and state laws. The Office of Drug Control, judges and family members should get copies of treatment center evaluations and decisions. Every county should have lockdown facilities for addicts. The state should make sure there are enough detox and treatment beds. Families should be able to choose faith-based treatment.

For two years Blair lobbied Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, to take up her cause. Both showed interest but found the fiscal impact too much for a state's sagging economy.

"It's something he's interested in," said Rouson's legislative assistant, Barclay Harless. "Sharon Blair's tragedy and what she proposed I know the representative supports, and it's a goal that he wants to achieve."

Latvala's chief legislative assistant, Jennifer Wilson, said: "The senator is looking at possibly filing something like it this year, maybe not as extensive as the Jennifer Act."

Blair's attempts in Indiana to pass a similar law also faced cost issues.

But each year, she keeps trying, using her website — thejenniferact.com — as a pulpit. She spends most of her time blogging about drugs, addiction and prescription pill abuse while returning e-mails and phone calls from people trying to navigate bureaucratic systems to find treatment options for loved ones.

If there was a reason Jennifer died, Blair believes it was this mission. "I'm a Christian lady. I'm not a politician or anything. I'm just a mother who tried so hard to save my child. I can't put into words how hard it is, but I believe God gave me a reason."

She regrets that her daughter's picture at MOSI doesn't include a few words about the Jennifer Act. She said the picture, which came from a local drug task force that includes law enforcement and judicial representatives, families and treatment officials, was donated to the exhibit before she could have any input.

She hopes MOSI visitors will dig deeper into Jennifer's story, something many families of victims featured in "Target America" also want.

"A lot of them feel, as part of their recovery and healing process, that if they are able to get out and tell the costs and consequences of drug abuse they can prevent the same thing," said David Melenkevitz, a Miami spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is sponsoring the exhibit.

That's all Blair wants.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

If you go

"Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause" opened in September and will remain at MOSI until next September. General museum admission is $16.95 to $20.95. Some schools and youth groups may qualify for transportation subsidies and reduced ticket prices. For information, call (813) 987-6000. The museum is at 4801 E Fowler Ave. in Tampa.

The Jennifer Act

To learn more about

the Jennifer Act, go to

thejenniferact.com.

MOSI exhibit on toll of drug abuse taps into a mother's pain and mission 10/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 4:52pm]

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