Stacy Nicholson is the face of the prescription drug abuse crisis in Florida. The St. Petersburg woman's struggle to stop abusing pills reflects the small successes and big setbacks experienced by so many addicts, and the toll it takes on their children and families. It also underscores the commitment this state must continue to make to crack down on the pill peddlers and fund the programs necessary to help those Floridians like Stacy who need help to resume productive lives.
Stacy's travels through jail and the courts, rehab and relapses are recounted in an extraordinary narrative by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Lane DeGregory and photographer John Pendygraft, "If I Die Young." Published in Sunday's Times, it can be found at www.tampabay.com/ifidieyoung. DeGregory and Pendygraft followed Stacy throughout the year, beginning with her appearance in drug court in February. This is a story of heartbreak and hope, of failure and redemption, and it is one that plays out in thousands of Florida families coping with the consequences of prescription drug abuse.
Some of the statistics are familiar. Seven Floridians die from prescription drug overdoses every day — a depressing number repeated from the state Capitol to county courthouses. Others are less well known but no less jarring: 249 people died from prescription drug overdoses in Pinellas County last year, the most in the state. Florida leads the nation in the number of newborns addicted to prescription drugs because of their mothers' use. And perhaps most stunningly, in the first half of 2010, 98 percent of the nation's oxycodone was prescribed in Florida. The numbers alone cry out for change.
Personal stories like Stacy's confirm the urgency of the prescription pill crisis in an emotional sense. They appeal to our collective compassion for our neighbors and co-workers, family members and friends who need help. And they demonstrate that the path from the depths of addiction to a productive life is often one step up and two steps back even for those who are desperate to escape the grip of drugs and have the help of family and others.
Stacy had more help than many: a dedicated mother who did not abandon her; empathetic Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell, who smartly mixed new chances with jail time; Ray Harris, who runs the Pinellas Park halfway house program called Simply Hope and mixed tough rules with a willingness to try again when Stacy failed; pizza shop employers who were willing to hire Stacy when she desperately needed a job. The importance of well-intentioned, dedicated support is a common thread that runs through this story.
Another thread is the role of government and the need to improve it. County jail should not be the default drug detox center. The court system needs more resources, and so do drug treatment programs. Stacy finished one program 18 sessions early because a grant that paid for counseling had run out. And while we're at it, a better public transit system would help everyone — including people like Stacy who often had no other way to get to work and to treatment sessions.
On a micro level, Stacy's story also reinforced the importance of the state's latest efforts to combat prescription drug abuse. The statewide prescription drug database and the crackdown on pill mills that dispense drugs like candy are essential elements of what has to be a multilevel approach to combat this crisis. Stacy's story is part heartbreaking, part inspiring and all too familiar for countless Florida families.