SAINT AUGUSTINE, Fla. - As the opioid crisis rages throughout the nation, the Florida National Guard Counterdrug Program (FLNG-CDP) is leading the fight in communities across our state.

One of the FLNG-CDP's most effective weapons in combatting this public health emergency is its Civil Operations Program (COP), a specialized group aimed at collaborating with local communities and engaging citizens in strategic initiatives designed to reduce the threat.'

The COP partners with prevention coalitions, law enforcement agencies, emergency services and treatment facilities throughout Florida. These localized partnerships provide a better understanding of the community's substance use problem and the development of a more unified anti-drug approach.

As part of this effort, the COP partnered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other partner agencies to plan and execute 16 "Prescription Drug Take-Back" events since August 2017. The events resulted in the collection of nearly 3,500 pounds of medications from the community. Some of the most notable drugs collected by the DEA included the highly addictive fentanyl, oxycodone and hydrocodone, all of which are opioids contributing to the National Heroin/Opioid Crisis.'

Bridget Heenan, executive director of Prevention, Advocacy, Choices, and Team Work (PACT) Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County, said that the "take back" events created a positive impact on communities, and that FLNG support was critical to their success.

"In our county alone we collected more than 943 pounds of prescription medication in four hours," she said.

The team also focuses on educating other organizations -- like churches, schools and community centers -- interested in participating in substance use prevention.'

"The Civil Operations team partners with these organizations not only to educate them, but also to expand community outreach initiatives already being conducted within the community," said 2nd Lt. Gabrielle Magnanti, COP South Florida lead.

One such initiative is the COP's substance-use prevention briefing entitled "Night Vision," which is aimed at educating Florida's youth about the dangers of substance abuse. The briefing outlines the five gateway drugs (alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, synthetics and prescription medications) and discusses how the substances can lead to addiction.'

During the 2017-2018 school year, the Night Vision anti-drug message reached more than 10,000 elementary, middle and high school students.

Nicole Stasky, a teacher at Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Florida, said that the presentation made a real impression on her students.

"It not only educated my students about the dangers of gateway drugs and addiction, but also touched them on a personal level," she said.

According to Capt. Michael Coy, the COP North Florida lead, programs aimed at helping young people are critical, as they help to address addiction before it takes hold.'

"Through these programs, we hope to improve youth resiliency and empower them with the confidence to say no to drugs from the beginning."