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Taking aim at drug abuse
Coalition member Tara Jennings outlines some goals at a recent meeting.

The Bryan County Drug Free Coalition is taking aim at what seems to be a growing problem in Richmond Hill – prescription drug abuse.

Last year, the Coalition identified prescription drug abuse as a target for the group to combat. Shortly thereafter, 24 young people from Richmond Hill were arrested and charged for crimes related to prescription drugs. There have been other related arrests recently, including two Richmond Hill shops that allegedly sold pills to customers.

Bill Collins, who recently resigned as chief of the Pembroke Police Department, has just been hired as the Drug Free Coalition Coordinator. He said it is no coincidence that the coalition’s latest goals and a rash of recent arrests both involve prescription drugs.

Collins said the recent rise in this type of crime coincides with the coalition being at its strongest point to date. The group, which formed in 2007, was recently awarded a $625,000 federal grant to help enhance its programs.

"This is a great situation for us because we can put emphasis on the problem at hand today and focus on it immediately," Collins said. "Everyone who is concerned about it now needs to be concerned about it when this is not a front page story. We don’t need to let it slide. The community needs to work with us and help us to make this problem manageable."

Collins said the Pembroke has a prescription problem also, but crack cocaine seems to be the most accessible drug in North Bryan.

The coalition is also gearing up to combat alcohol and other narcotics.

Coalition member and Richmond Hill Police Chief Billy Reynolds said the RHPD has seen a change in recent years.

"Marijuana was the most used and abused drug that our youth was using for many years, but then we saw the trend change to where cars we pulled over, instead of finding marijuana, we were finding pharmaceuticals," he said.

Reynolds said the added assistance from the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team led to the January bust, which exposed the problem to the public.

"Anything you have in your medicine cabinet, kids will take it and sell it," Reynolds said. "They get a lot of it from their parents and grandparents. And they really don’t realize the severity of this issue. They think because it’s something you can get with a prescription, it’s OK to buy and sell it.

Bryan County Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said coalition member Tara Jennings has told him for years now how there was a bigger drug problem in Bryan County than anyone realizes. He said "it blew me away – I almost went to my knees" when reading the front page story in January about the 24 local kids busted for alleged illegal activity with prescription drugs. He said he knows some of the parents of the children, and "they’re not from the wrong side of the tracks."

"We have a tremendous community, and to have this kind of stigma is unacceptable," Burnsed said. "We’ve got to make this thing (coalition) work and make a difference with the kids in this community."

During a recent Richmond Hill Rotary Club meeting, a member said she heard a rumor that Richmond Hill is known throughout the state for having a problem with prescription drugs, and she asked Reynolds how true he believes that to be.

"It’s true as far as how law enforcement in this part of the state has regarded Richmond Hill over the past year or so," Reynolds said. "You take Effingham – that’s known for meth. You get communities that get attached to a certain stigma after a number of arrests. The word among law enforcement in this area over is that a lot of it does come through here, but a lot of it is because there was somebody that lived here who brought bags of it from Orlando."

Collins said the coalition has several plans of attack to decrease the problem.

The coalition has already started a curriculum in Bryan schools and Collins made a presentation at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting "to see if we can be more active in schools and with counselors." Also in the works are billboards and a mass media campaign called ‘lock it up’ – designed to create awareness on the importance of keeping prescription pills out of reach. Collins said the group will also be working with legislators, law enforcement, city council and commissioners.

"We do not take this problem lightly," coalition member Tara Jennings said. "We want people to know the Drug Free Coalition exists and we’re strong and we’re not going to give up or be shot down easily."

For more information or to join the coalition, call Collins at 653-5258 or Coalition Chairman Gini Nichols at 572-5778.

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