Recovering addicts turn to Ocala police for help

Drug Amnesty program saving lives, getting results on crime

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

OCALA, Fla. - Melissa Crane, an Ocala mother of three grown children, said she spent much of her life addicted to drugs, but is now getting the help she needs, thanks to a program offered by the Ocala Police Department.

"They've seen me high," Crane said.

When she thinks about it, she said she feels embarrassed, ashamed and guilty.

Crane said she was 24 when she started using drugs, including painkillers, heroin, methamphetamines and ice. She's 41 now.

She tried to get help several times. Sometimes she was turned away. Sometimes treatment lasted only days, according to Crane.

"I thought when I went to rehab I was fixed," Crane said.

Most times, Crane said the treatment didn't work because it was too short or she'd come home to a boyfriend doing drugs and she'd relapse.

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"I just was using really bad, living in the streets, living in a tent, pretty much dead on the inside," Crane said. "I couldn't stand the life I lived. Didn't like it at all. At the same time, couldn't change it." 

Crane said she was on what she calls "suicide on the installment plan."

"Every day you're dying," Crane said.

Three months ago, Crane overdosed on fentanyl.

"My children called 911 and they [first responders] came and hit me with Narcan twice," Crane said. "I went to the hospital crying and said I needed help, and they sent me home."

Crane said that's when her 60-year-old mother sent her to the Ocala PD. She'd heard about the department's Drug Amnesty Program on Facebook.

The program guarantees addicts a bed at Marion County's primary substance abuse and mental health provider, The Centers in Ocala.

Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham started the program in February.

"Even with all the drugs that we seized and all the people we put in jail, the overdoses are getting worse," Graham said.

Graham said earlier this year the department's United Drug Enforcement Strike Team, made possible through a collaboration with the Marion County Sheriff's Office, arrested 95 drug dealers.

Still, 116 people have overdosed in Ocala already this year and 16 have died from overdoses. According to Graham, 26 people would have died if first responders hadn't given the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.

In 2017, 16 people died from overdoses.

Graham said drug use leads to crime. Users become desperate to support their habit and begin burglarizing, robbing and committing fraud.

Graham said an addict who came to Ocala PD earlier this year for help admitted he was about to commit a crime.

"He saw it [the Drug Amnesty Program] and thought, 'I need to come in because I'm about to rob somebody, steal something, break in,'" Graham said.

Steve Blank, the chief operating officer of The Centers, said when Graham asked for community partners to agree to guarantee drug addiction treatment and a bed at a treatment facility, The Centers volunteered.

"Our thought was, 'How could we not step up?'" Blank said. "We know the importance of that, the importance of there being a place for them [addicts] to go to. We just wanted to be part of the solution." 

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Blank said addicts who are turned away from treatment or don't succeed in treatment often end up dying.

"Chances are they won't make it and chances are they'll be one of the statistics that you heard about, that is an overdose or death," Blank said.

Graham said since February, the Ocala PD has sent 29 people who came to the police for addiction help to The Centers for treatment.

Melissa Crane is currently finishing an intensive 90-day program at The Centers that provides counseling, medication and room and board.

She is now looking for a Halfway House to continue her recovery. She said her mother and three children are proud of her and involved in her recovery, joining her in family addiction recovery meetings at The Centers every weekend.

The State of Florida is paying for most of her treatment.

Blank said treating a recovering addict costs upwards of $6,000 per patient per month. 

He said The Centers has the space to treat more addicts but not the funding.

The Ocala Police Department is assisting with funding by donating drug forfeiture money to The Centers.

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