By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
The Bridge, a local organization which spreads awareness of the dangers of substance abuse, has been working to inform church pastors of the drug epidemic the community is currently facing.The …
The Bridge, a local organization which spreads awareness of the dangers of substance abuse, has been working to inform church pastors of the drug epidemic the community is currently facing.
The organization hosted an event for pastors on Wednesday at the Church of God International Offices, and they heard from a variety of speakers who have firsthand knowledge of the problem.
Speakers at the event stressed that addiction can affect people from all walks of life — even those who attend church. That is because people are more commonly abusing prescription drugs which can be found in many peoples’ medicine cabinets.
Scott Elam of The Bridge said part of the problem is that doctors are often “over-prescribing” opioid painkillers. For example, someone undergoing a simple surgery like wisdom teeth removal may receive more painkillers than they will use while recovering.
“Those doctors, those dentists will not listen to me. They will listen to you as a pastor and to their peers,” Elam said. “We have got to break that chain.”
He said many doctors today are often not well-informed about the danger of patients becoming addicted.
“I’m not here to bash on physicians; I’m here to bash on this drug and help awaken conversations on this,” Elam said.
Those who do become addicted to opioids, he added, often find it easy to gain access to more. If a doctor will not prescribe more drugs to them, those who are addicted will often steal from the medicine cabinets of friends and loved ones.
He noted The Bridge has been helping host drug take-back events throughout this community in an effort to cut down on the number of drugs that are available.
“I challenge you to take a look in your medicine cabinet. I can almost guarantee there is stuff in there you no longer know about,” Elam said. “If you have to have stuff, lock it up so nobody else can gain access to it.”
Dr. Linda Cash, director of Bradley County Schools, spoke of how the drug epidemic has affected students in the community.
Cash said she has had some frank conversations with her high school-aged son about drugs, and has learned that it is quite easy for students to gain access to drugs — even on school grounds.
He told her that students know they can text message other students who sell drugs and, within minutes, meet up for an exchange.
“That should really shake all of us up,” Cash said.
Students use drugs for a variety of reasons, including the “cool factor,” she said.
However, she said many students use drugs because they “are seeking a feeling of warmth and belonging” and like how the drugs make them feel.
“The problem is … Kids do not know or understand what it does to them,” Cash said. “They think it is a one-time thing for them.”
This misconception has led to students facing “devastating” addictions, which can be fatal. She described the horror of hearing that one of her son’s best friends, Bradley Central High School student Jace Taylor, had died of an accidental drug overdose.
Cash said she and her school district’s staff have since been trying to raise awareness of the dangers of drug use. These efforts have included helping high school students start a group to raising awareness among their peers.
The hope, she said, is that sharing more information with youth will help keep more tragedies from occurring.
She said pastors should realize this is a very real danger facing their youth and should not be afraid to talk about drugs.
“My biggest fear is that, as adults, we are not talking about it or giving them information,” Cash said.
Bill Cherry, director of the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force, explained that many people either do not realize there is a significant drug problem in this area — or “pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“I fight what you pretend doesn’t exist,” Cherry said.
He said he was happy for the opportunity to talk to a group of pastors about how drugs can affect their congregants, because it has been rare for people in law enforcement to get that opportunity.
To illustrate the prevalence of drug use in Cleveland, he described how his officers have more than once been called out to the Museum Center at 5ive Points, a popular event venue, to dispose of hypodermic needles and spoons found on the property. These items were evidence of heroin use.
“This is Cleveland, Tennessee, and this is our problem,” Cherry said. “We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. …. We also can’t arrest us out of this issue.”
Cherry explained the role of law enforcement officers is to protect the community from crimes related to drug activity.
He stressed it is important for pastors and other community leaders to look for ways to prevent drug abuse and ensure people who are addicted can get the help they need before it is too late.
While the Drug Task Force does respond to cases involving hard drugs like heroin, he stressed that such addictions can begin with people using the prescription drugs found in ordinary medicine cabinets.
“It starts almost in every case with that person in high school or grammar school starting with that first one,” Cherry said. “Where did they get it? It’s prescribed to them for a legitimate purpose … and they have access to more.”
That “access to more” is the problem for those seeking comfort in their drug use.
He implored the pastors to help raise awareness of this issue in their communities and make people aware of how they can get help for any addictions they are facing.
“If you are not, you are doing a disservice to your people,” Cherry said.
Judge Andrew Freiberg, who oversees criminal court and recovery court for the 10th Judicial District, also stressed this area’s drug problem is worse than many people realize.
“The opioid crisis is the worst drug epidemic in the history of our country,” Freiberg said.
He pointed out that those who grew up hearing about “the war on drugs” may think of drug addicts as people in inner cities using substances like cocaine.
He cited a statistic which said the Bradley County Emergency Medical Service responds to between 23 and 28 drug overdose calls each month. Many of these have been the result of people abusing prescription drugs.
Freiberg said many of the drug-related search warrants he signs are not always because police are investigating drug dealers. Most often, these search warrants are ordered to help find out what caused a person to overdose.
He also encouraged pastors to address drug use with their congregations, because pastors are in a unique position to be able to have such conversations.
Freiberg added churches can partner with The Bridge to host awareness events. Depending on their schedules, local law enforcement officers may also be willing to help with drug-take back events.
The judge again stressed that this is a widespread problem affecting people from all walks of life, and more people need to be aware of it.
“It’s us. It’s not someone who’s in a bad part of town … It’s you and me,” Freiberg said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have never seen anything like this. Our community house is on fire.”
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