By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
An estimated 1,500 people marched against drug abuse on Saturday from the front of Resurrection Life Church to Jack Read Park on Goodyear Boulevard to demonstrate that concerned citizens in Pearl River County are going to rise up and confront what officials are calling a drug crisis here.
The march, the second one held in as many years, was sponsored by a coalition, The Pearl River County United Coalition, and the group, which is made up of civic leaders, men and women in business and industry here, and supported by the county’s three school systems, says it is determined to make a major impact on the drug problem in Pearl River County.
Pearl River County School Superintendent Alan Lumpkin emceed the rally at Read Park at the end of the march. Last year an estimated 1,000 participated in the 2-mile-long march, and crowd estimates on Saturday were larger than last year.
The effort took on added significance this year after county law enforcement officials, who are faced with wrestling with the drug problem, went public with statements concerning how widespread the problem is.
Sheriff David Allison, in a candid interview with the Item, admitted that the county has a major problem, mainly with prescription drugs, said it is a spiritual, educational and moral problem, and that the county law enforcement agencies could not “arrest our way out of the problem.” He said efforts would have to begin in the schools with children.
Also recently, county coroner Derek Turnage revealed, again in an interview with the Item, that since January there have been 17 people who have died from drug overdoses in Pearl River County. He called it an epidemic. Both Turnage and Allison attended the Saturday march.
Turnage, along with Dawn Bechtel, presented a short skit to demonstrate how Turnage, in his duty as coroner, must notify parents that their child has died of a drug overdose. Mournful cries from Bechtel, portraying the mother of a child who has died, rang out over the subdued crowd during the presentation. Bechtel is active in the fight against drug abuse locally.
A number of speakers who addressed the enthusiastic crowd on Saturday said they were going to “take Pearl River County back from the drug dealers.” Law enforcement officials who spoke said they would strictly enforce the law and asked for public help and support.
One of the problems with the drug epidemic is that the drugs that are being abused are prescription drugs, written for patients by doctors, and law enforcement officials have said they can do nothing if a person has a legitimate prescription from a doctor, even if the person seems to be abusing the drugs. Some addicts who get a prescription for narcotics from doctors then sell the pills on the street for $20 to $40 a pill, depending on what it is.
Law enforcement officials have said off-the-record the vast majority of doctors here and in the surrounding area prescribe drugs properly, but that a small minority do abuse the prescription-writing privilege.
Those who abuse drugs are known to do what is called “doctor shopping,” finding a doctor who will prescribe what they want and in large amounts. In addition, what are called “pill mills” have popped up.
Mark Stockstill, Highland Community Hospital CEO, who has done original research in drug abuse problems, told Item Community Editor Jodi Marze before the march, “Substance abuse is a growing and serious problem in Pearl River County. . .We often look to law enforcement, hospitals and churches to solve this problem, but this is a community problem and, therefore, a community responsibility. If we can reach these kids prior to junior high. . .we have a shot at keeping them drug free.”
The coalition is planning outreach efforts that will begin with elementary school-aged children.
Todd Goodwin told the crowd, “We are tired of this, and we call upon God to help deliver us from this scourge.”
Said Lumpkin, “If you just look around right now, drugs seem to be winning in Pearl River County, and that is a shame. And we must stand up against this. We are going to make a difference. We are going to ultimately win this battle. We have all been affected by this problem in our families or we know someone who has.”
Said the Rev. Jimmy Richardson, Sr., of Poplarville: “I woke up in jail because of drugs, and I asked God to help me. I got out and began to devote myself to God and my family, and from being the worst father in the world, I became Poplarville’s School District Parent of the Year in 2005. There is a second chance with the Lord. With the Lord you can start all over again.”
Said Pearl River County Sheriff’s Dept. Chief Investigator Donnie Saucier, “The community’s help is extremely important. We need your help, support and involvement. The amount of information we have received since last year’s drug march has increased. If you know someone who is on drugs, get them help; tell somebody. We cannot tolerate this situation anymore.”
Said Turnage, “Wake up Pearl River County! Seventeen deaths directly tied to drugs since January. My job is not a glamorous job, having to tell parents and relatives their loved ones have died from a drug overdose, but I have to do this as part of my job. We have to wake up now! Please, Pearl River County, wake up!”
Said Michael Lewis, former Saints great, “This subject touches me. I was at one time going down the wrong road, but one of my cousins got killed, and it changed my life. I lost a cousin. So I decided to go a different direction. His death changed my life. . .If I can reach one kid, it’s all worth it, and I can sleep good at night.” Lewis was the keynote speaker at Jack Read Park. “You have to standup and take responsibility for your own actions,” said Lewis, who in 2002 set an NFL record for combined kick-punt return yardage of 2,432 yards. He later played for the 49ers. He currently works as a Saints Ambassador out of the Saints front office.