CLEARWATER — For proof that the prescription drug crisis in the Tampa Bay area has touched almost every age group and demographic, look no further than the latest drug court program in Pinellas.
Designed for young adults ages 18 to 26 who are addicted to illegal prescription drugs, the program, which begins this year, is the result of a $1.3 million federal grant. For the next three years, the Pinellas drug court plans to spend this money on counseling and treatment for 185 young men and women, all of whom have drug-related nonviolent felonies on their records and addictions to kick.
Given as a milder form of punishment than jail time, drug court requires addicts to complete 12 to 18 months of treatment as a condition of probation.
The programs have a mixed record of success. Critics have pointed to their strict eligibility requirements, as well as the scores of people who never attend or, if they do, drop out before graduating.
For three years, Pinellas has had a drug court program for women, using grant money from the U.S. Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It admitted about 70 women each year, said Michelle Ardabily, Pinellas' chief deputy court administrator, 109 of whom ultimately graduated. Thirty-one are still in treatment.
The new program for young adults (called YouCan) is modeled on the one for women (called WeCan!) and includes additional funding from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Though some of the money will be spent on a case manager, most of it will go to treatment centers like WestCare Florida of St. Petersburg and the Center for Rational Living in Clearwater, according to Pinellas Drug Court Director Nick Bridenback.
Prescription drug abuse among young people is still a "major problem" in Pinellas, Ardabily said. In 2010, 229 young adults died with prescription drugs in their system, she said. Oxycodone appeared in the majority of those cases.
"We're starting to see a lot more other synthetics and that sort of thing," Ardabily said, referring to synthetic drugs that attempt to mimic marijuana but often come with far more serious side effects. In gas stations and convenience stores, they are sold under names like K2 and Spice.
Though the grant will not benefit his office directly, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said treating addicts differently based on their age is the right approach.
"You don't want to treat a college kid caught with a joint the same way you're treating an heroin addict," he said. "And unfortunately some of these programs lump everyone together."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.