BROOKSVILLE — For more than a year, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has used pamphlets, billboards and even started a program designed to collect unused medications to warn the public about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
Officials there do not think enough people have gotten the word. Now, they want citizens to know the death toll.
In a sobering news release Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office announced that seven people died from an overdose of prescription medications in March — an unusually high number.
Officials also noted that more people had died of drug-related reasons (135) than traffic accidents (127) over the past three-and-a-half years in Hernando.
"We wanted to show people the big numbers," said Capt. James Walker, supervisor of the agency's major crimes and narcotic division. "We're here to preserve life and we can't let this trend continue."
The Sheriff's Office has been particularly aggressive in tackling the problem of prescription drug abuse over the past year.
Walker and other law enforcement officials headed up the launch of Operation Medicine Cabinet, a program designed to arrange for the voluntary collection of expired, unused or unwanted prescription medications.
The event last year drew 376 people who dropped off 3,904 bottles of unused or unwanted prescription drugs. The numbers have not been tabulated from a similar event held in March.
The program was considered enough of a success that the Sheriff's Office is holding another one on Saturday, May 1, at the Hurricane Expo at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Spring Hill.
Also, Hernando detectives have tried to find the sources of illegally obtained prescription drugs. One of the first people to be targeted as part of this initiative, Dawn Jennings, 46, was charged with third-degree murder and sale of a controlled substance in the overdose death of a 23-year-old Spring Hill man.
At the time, prosecutor Don Barbee said it was the first case of its kind that he's handled since coming to Hernando County. Jennings has yet to go to trial. She is set to appear at a pretrial hearing on April 15.
"We've gone above and beyond what I've seen other agencies do," Walker said. "But we still, even with that, have these high numbers."
The next step in curbing abuse, Walker said, might be targeting some of the local pain-management clinics. Some law enforcement agencies have pointed to the growth in these clinics as part of the reason for Florida's rising number of overdose deaths.
"It's an issue we just didn't have before," Walker said. "They're completely unregulated, and they've been a scourge everywhere they've popped up."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.