Ask most any individual who works within the local criminal justice system what he or she thinks is the biggest catalyst for crime, and each answers pretty much the same. With little hesitation, each agrees that most of society’s ills can be traced back to the use of illegal drugs and the abuse of legal drugs.
“In most crimes we have, in some way drugs are a part of the problem,” said Atmore Police Chief Chuck Brooks. “I say that because the people who commit robberies, thefts, burglaries, breaking and entering into vehicles, I feel as though they are doing that to purchase drugs for a habit they have. I wouldn’t say that drug abuse is the root of all society’s evil, but I will say it’s a very contributive part to the root of all society’s evil.”
Escambia County Circuit Judge Dave Jordan was even more explicit in his assessment of the local drug problem.
“We really have a reflection in our court system of the problems going on in our society,” Jordan told local business leaders during a May 18 appearance at the Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce’s Breakfast With an Elected Official. “It goes across all spectrums, and drugs are the engine that drives the train. It’s very hard for us and law enforcement to try and deal with it when we see the destruction drugs wreak on our community.”
Circuit Judge Bert Rice, speaking to the same group in July, echoed the sentiments expressed by the younger half of the local circuit-level judiciary.
“Used to, the only illegal substance you heard about was somebody having a little too much beer to drink,” Rice said. “I wish it was that way again, but it’s not. Alabama leads the nation in opiate addiction. The majority of the criminal cases Judge Jordan and I hear are either possessing or selling illegal drugs or stealing to support a drug habit.”
Brooks said the drug-infused social breakdown has no boundaries.
“We see it in all ages, from very young on up,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what race, nationality or anything the person is; it doesn’t matter if a person is very poor or very rich. It’s just a widespread problem.”
Authorities admitted that marijuana and synthetic marijuana, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine, Ecstasy and even heroin are readily available on the local black market, and abuse of alcohol ranks high on the list. But most agree that the drugs most abused by locals are those issued by medical professionals.
“Prescription drugs are a big thing here,” said Denise Carlee, director of Escambia County Drug Court. “Use of methamphetamine, crack cocaine and powder cocaine has decreased some. Spice is a big thing here, and heroin is making a big comeback, but prescription drugs are killing us.”
Brooks didn’t hesitate in his agreement, adding that addiction to prescribed drugs has changed the stereotype of the typical drug user or abuser.
“Abuse of prescription pills would be very close to the top, very close,” the police chief said of the most-abused substances police deal with. “We see it all the time — people going into cars or medicine cabinets to steal prescription pills, employees stealing from other employees, family members stealing from other family members. Some of them will do anything, even steal from their mother, to get that buzz.
“People associate a drug abuser as using cocaine, heroin, crack and methamphetamines, but prescription pills are right up there with them. Are they all bad people? No, they’re not all bad people; a lot of them just made some terrible decisions and became dependent on this particular chemical that’s going on in their world. I’ve seen mechanics, construction workers, healthcare workers, even law enforcement people who were good officers, but for whatever reason got hooked on whatever their drug of choice was.”
Carlee pointed out that a growing number of locals have chosen another substance that is also prescribed, but not for humans.
“We’re seeing more and more people that are using fentanyl, which is like elephant tranquilizer,” the drug court director said of the veterinary medicine. “In fact, we’re getting enough reports that people are using fentanyl that we’re testing for it now.”
Brooks was quick to point out that, despite the growing drug abuse problem in Atmore and Escambia County, the community is not alone in its plight.
“Drug abuse, the selling of narcotics, is a nationwide epidemic,” the police chief said. “It’s not just here; it’s not just in certain areas. Yes, we have the major traffic corridors, I-65, (Alabama) 21 and (U.S.) 31 — but look at Bay Minette or Brewton, and it’s exactly the same. Every town in this area has problems with drugs, and so does every town from Gulf Shores to Muscle Shoals.”
Help is available
Karean Reynolds, who serves as director of Escambia County Children’s Policy Council, said statistics back up the contention that drug abuse is the biggest problem among the county’s younger generation.
“Drugs have continually been identified as a contributing factor to all issues affecting our youth, according to the data for our needs assessment, DHR statistics and our pride survey,” he said, adding that Drug Court and three other major initiatives have been implemented to combat the social stumbling block.
* The Drugs Erase Dreams program, conducted in partnership with the Coalition for a Healthier Escambia County and local city and county school systems, is designed to educate youth, parents and the general community of the effects of drug abuse.
* Project CLOUD (Choosing Life Over Using Drugs) is a partnership between the policy council and the county’s alternative and compass schools to educate high-risk youth on substance abuse.
* Peer Helper Program is a series of partnerships with each local high school.
“I deal every day with people who are mired in this problem,” Jordan said. “Asking the judicial system to try and fix all these people that are damaged, it’s difficult. Putting them in jail is not the answer because of their underlying drug addiction. Until we deal with that drug addiction, our behavior is not going to stop.”
Brooks agreed. “We make drug arrests literally every day; if not every day, every other day,” he said. “It’s everywhere you go. The dangers are everywhere. It’s a danger to the community; it’s a danger for people traveling. But that’s the society we’re living in. We do our very best to combat it every day, but it’s like a tree that branches off to numerous problems.”