The statistics are staggering:
Every day, seven Floridians die of an overdose from prescription pain pills.
In 2010, Pinellas County had the most deaths: 249 (up 60 from the year before).
Pinellas also has the nation’s first all-female drug court, which sees more than 500 defendants a year, most of whom were caught using legal drugs illegally.
The idea was simple:
Follow several women through drug court.
Find out who is being arrested for abusing pain pills, how they get the drugs, what it’s like to crave them, how they feel, what they lose, what help is available, how hard it is to get off them -- and what happens when you try, or fail.
The execution was exhausting:
For a year, we immersed ourselves in the world of addicts.
Starting in January 2011, Times photographer John Pendygraft and I camped out in drug court every Tuesday, for Ladies Day. We watched dozens of women of all demographics stumble into Courtroom 10. We heard them tell the judge how high they were, how sorry they were, how much they didn’t want to go to jail or lose their jobs or kids. We saw some proudly proclaim they had been clean for three weeks, or nine months. Others sobbed over relapses -- and friends they had watched die.
By that spring, we had talked to more than 100 women -- and their lawyers, their parents, their husbands. Many of them didn’t want to share their stories publicly. Others agreed, but relatives refused to let us in.
We wound up following three women all year, spending days in jail, afternoons at half-way houses, all-nighters watching women scrounge for pills, or pot, or … whatever they could find. One woman forgot she had a 3-year-old daughter. Another slapped a baliff.
Death stalked these addicts, and people they loved. We watched a woman carry the ashes of her mom, who had overdosed, into her car where she was living. We were with another woman when her cousin, who had overdosed, died. We sat in the yard of a drug dealer’s house, talking to a woman who was sleeping with him for pills, not knowing another addict he had killed was buried beneath our lawn chairs.
We learned how easy it is to get fake MRIs and prescriptions, how some doctors don’t ask for either, how quickly you can make a living selling pills -- and how fast you fall into addiction. We found out why people crave the high and fear the low: When you try to get off oxycodone your bones ache and your mind races and you freeze and sweat and writhe for days.
We talked to a judge and jail doctor, cops and counselors, former addicts, people who run residential treatment centers, and way too many parents who had lost children to overdoses.
Near the end of the year, we were grateful all the women we had followed were still alive. But one had fled the state -- and her probation. Another was back in jail -- and pregnant.
We wound up focusing on Stacy Nicholson, 28, from St. Petersburg, who had been shooting and snorting pain pills for four years. She had given her 12-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to their grandparents. Her mom kept telling her, "You’re going to die." But we saw that Stacy wanted to get well -- if not for herself, for her children.
She had determination and hope and a mom who loved her. She just needed help. For a year, we talked to Stacy or her mom almost every day, worried about her every night. We published our first story in December, then teamed up with ABC Action News to share video and audio recordings from our year of reporting. This month, we caught up with Stacy again, six months after she moved out of the half-way house.
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