LAND O'LAKES, Fla. — Bay area residents packed into the Land O'Lakes Community Center Tuesday for the first of three information sessions led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration meant to educate the public on issues related to opioid abuse.

Tuesday's session in Pasco County, as well as one that took place at the same time in Manatee County, are all part of the DEA’s "360 Strategy."

In a three-part training session, attendees learn about opioids, including how to talk to children about drugs and how to deliver this information back out to friends, family and community members. 

Attendee Rachel Starostin said her connection to the subject matter, as well as her reason for attending the session, is deeply personal. 

“To give back to the same community that I caused so much harm in,” she explained. 

Starostin was working as a travel nurse several years ago when she was hit by a drunk driver. She was prescribed opioids for her injuries and pain, but that led her down a road of addiction and crime. 

Eventually she was arrested by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and went to jail. 

Like so many other addicts, she made the excuse she was just using the drug for pain. 

“I am using this for pain, it’s never going to happen to me,” said Starostin. “And it did, and then I didn’t know how to stop.”

"Can't arrest our way out of this problem"

But that is exactly what the training is about: teaching everyday people about resources so they can share it and be there for others facing addiction or in recovery. 

“You would rather want to talk to one of your friends or coworkers, than law enforcement,” said Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Michael Fergason, DEA Tampa.

Fergason said the DEA believes reaching people on a community level will help combat the epidemic.  The Pasco Sheriff’s Office agrees with that strategy, too. 

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” said Pasco Sheriff's Office Captain Mike Jenkins. “So when we see the community engaging and interested, number one, recognizing that there is a problem that exists and taking some ownership in saying, ‘hey we need to be a part of the problem as well.’” 

Opioids, heroin and fentanyl are causing deaths across at a record setting pace. According to National Institute on Drug Abuse between 2012 and 2017, synthetic opioid deaths have jumped more than 1,000 percent (from 162 to 2,126). 

“Unfortunately in 2019, we are tracking to have a record year and that is not a good thing," said Jenkins. "That is a terrible thing. We have seen our overdoses and our overdose deaths skyrocket."

More sessions, additional programs coming

Two more training sessions are scheduled for Wednesday in Hillsborough County and Pinellas counties.

On top of this, DEA Tampa is also launching a Peer-to-Peer program. It is a three-day training operation to teach parents how to help and support other parents who have addicted or recovering children.

The training begins August 2 and requires a six-month commitment. 

For Starostin, both training programs show progress happening here in the Bay area. 

“It’s regular people that people relate, too, and it’s those people that change the world,” said Starostin. 

If you need to speak to someone about a person you know who addicted, call this hotline: 1-855-378-4373.