Town hall on opioid abuse focuses on keeping young people from getting hooked

Law enforcement officers and health care workers met at Booker T. Washington High in Overtown on Thursday to discuss Miami-Dade’s opioid epidemic — and how to prevent the next generation from getting hooked.

At a town hall meeting hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, representatives from local and federal law enforcement agencies, rehab facilities, fire rescue and health care organizations shared what they’ve been doing to combat heroin, prescription pain killer and fentanyl abuse in South Florida and what still needs to be done.

“We also need to raise awareness and talk to people, especially youth, truthfully, honestly, about the deadly consequences of their choices,” said Howard Rosen, an assistant state attorney at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. “Then, if unfortunately prevention doesn’t work, we must focus on providing treatment for those grappling with addiction.”

The experts emphasized the need for more beds at publicly funded drug treatment centers and more prevention efforts. And, over and over again, they tried to convey to the audience just how devastating opioid abuse has been for the county.

“It truly makes my stomach turn to hear the number of deaths that we’ve gotten to a point in our community where there are more deaths related to overdoses than murder, than gun violence,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Pérez.

But for some in the audience, the toll of opioid addiction was familiar.

“To me it’s been really traumatizing” seeing the bodies of overdose victims in the area, said Renita Holmes, a community activist and Overtown resident. “I can’t imagine what it is to be a child and see a body right in front of you. ... It’s just an everyday thing now.”

Although the event was held at Booker T. High because of a facilities-use agreement, rather than as part of a school program, some teachers and neighborhood parents took advantage of the opportunity to teach teens about the dangers of opioid abuse. Roughly 30 Booker T. High students sat in the audience alongside professionals working in law enforcement and drug treatment.

Overtown resident Laura Philpot was with her son, an 11th-grader at the school. Philpot said she worries about the heroin use in the area, which is one of the epicenters of the county’s opioid epidemic. Philpot said she and her children have seen heroin users keel over as they walk down the street.

“In a way I’m kind of glad my kids see the reality of drugs,” Philpot said. “At least they see the seriousness of what it can do to people.” She said authorities should run more public awareness campaigns to make sure residents in other parts of the county, where the problem isn’t always as visible, are aware of the dangers.

This is something Miami-Dade School Board member Martin Karp would like to see as well — more prevention efforts aimed at keeping young people away from opioids, including the prescription pain killers that can lead to heroin abuse.

“I think a lot of our children specifically don’t know that a lot of medications that are prescription medications may not be safe,” Karp said. “The fact of the matter is that prescription drugs are causing a lot of damage today and we need to change the perception that all prescription drugs are safe.”

Karp said he hopes to host future town halls to educate families and gauge the impact of the epidemic on Miami-Dade’s young people. “If you have a conversation about it, you can address a problem that otherwise would continue to be overlooked,” he said. “You’re putting it on the radar and I think now is a critical time to do that.”