Dozens of people currently in drug court or on probation gathered in Lackawanna Monday, where they heard firsthand accounts from people who are also battling an ongoing opioid crisis on the front lines, as the prosecutors, survivors of loved ones of those who succumbed to addiction.
Organizers of Operation: Scared 2 Death say this is unlike Scared Straight. It's a program described as an educational opportunity for drug users to learn about the facts of an ongoing opioid epidemic, potential legal consequences and the deadly presence of fentanyl, which often times is cut with batches of heroin.
According to Michael Cereo, Resident Agent In Charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency in the Western District of New York, explained that just two milligrams of fentanyl, which appeared on a video screen as specks smaller than a penny, are fatal. He went on to inform the audience of several dozen people that Western New York holds the highest rate of increased overdose deaths in all of New York State.
"Since August 25 there has been a death every single day regarding an opiate or heroin," Cereo said. "On top of that, we're seeing 350 to 500 overdoses per month in (Erie) county."
Michael Sargent's son Wade battled heroin addiction and suffered a fatal overdose. In a presentation with often strong words, Sargent said while he understands the power of addiction he cannot understand why, with all the information available about the dangers of opioids, people are still dumb enough to try them.
"Do you know what happens when you die? You get put in the ground," he said. "You know who has to live with the pain now? Your (expletive) parents. We never get over this. We never get over this."
Constance Perna, funeral director for Perna Dengler Robert Funeral Home, says when elderly people die, their wake and funeral is often times a true celebration of life, sometimes filled with laughter and warm conversations that help recall the life of the one being mourned. It's much different at the funeral of a young person who has died of an overdose, she explained.
"When you see a 23-year-old laying in a casket, when their parents are barely able to stand and the little sister is sobbing and the grandparents can't even breathe, it's a very different place to be," Perna said. "The people that come in to see that person often times aren't even talking."
Prosecutors were also among the speakers, providing information about the jail terms one might expect if caught in possession of substances including heroin or fentanyl. One of them warned that judges are held accountable by the public and are under great pressure to hand down tough sentences.
But there was one person offering hope, a young woman who has overcome her own addiction. Upon cleaning up, Brittany Turner earned a degree and is now working full-time.
"When the rubber meets the road, there is no blueprint for the perfect ending," she said. "That's the ultimate challenge in helping ourselves. You might be saying to yourself 'how do I know this going to work for me or that's going to work for me?' You just don't."
She described making a poor choice to try drugs as a teenager. She recalled missing her prom, getting kicked out of college her first year and hitting rock bottom. Turner said she was the one who was throwing needles out of car windows and getting in trouble. She said her problems were a "karma" she much deserved.
But in her message of hope to the audience, Turner added that she was never offered a seat in a program such as this one. In her words, those who were seated were there because the courts are not ready to give up on them.