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Opioid crisis hits close to home

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A photo of Blackman High School graduate Brandon Fraser, taken a few months before he passed away. COURTESY PHOTO

Fourth Congressional District candidate Steven Reynolds and his wife Shelley are trying to shine a light on the national opioid crisis nearly two years after her son died of an overdose.

Brandon Fraser, a Blackman High graduate, left a troubled life in Murfreesboro and moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2014 where he was working full time, exercising regularly at a gym and had just gotten his own apartment in late November 2015 when disaster struck, according to the Reynolds.

"He had planned to come up to visit us. Everything was going really good in his life and on the beach, and he was loving life. About two weeks after ...," Steven trails off.

"Dec. 3, I got a knock on the door at 3 o'clock in the morning," Shelley says, starting to tear up as she recalls the pain of hearing police tell her the news. Her son had been found dead in his apartment from cardiac arrest.

For weeks, they tried to figure out what happened, even wondering if he had been using steroids because he'd put on 30 pounds in a short period of time. They queried people he'd stayed with, asking if he had been using the dangerous drug. They all said no.

"We don't know if it was his first time. We don't know if he was relapsing from something prior. We just don't know. It was extremely difficult, as you can imagine, on our family and Shelley in particular," says Steven.

More than two months later, the toxicology report showed he overdosed on heroin. And even before then, Brandon's cell phone showed someone came to his apartment the night he died, likely the person who sold him the drugs, they say.

Brandon had a checkered past in Murfreesboro, including problems with alcohol and run-ins with the law for assault. Shelley and Steven, who married after his death, believed he had turned his life in a new direction.

His friends rallied around them in the aftermath, and they prefer to talk about his good points, such as his penchant for helping veterans and even giving a friend a place to stay in Florida for a couple of weeks.

More than anything, though, they want people to understand the problem gripping the nation and Tennessee in particular, where 1,451 people died from drug overdoses in 2015 and 6,036 in a five-year period, according to the state Department of Health.

"It's easy for us to get out of bed in the morning and fight this fight," Steven says. "We think about Brandon, and I don't want to see another mother go through what my wife has been through. We don't want to see other families go through this anymore. This is one of the drivers behind our campaign."

The Reynolds chose not to talk about Brandon's death in 2016 when he ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket and lost to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg.

But with the death of Max Barry, son of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, shocking the greater Davidson County community, they decided it was time to finally discuss Brandon's death publicly.

"The proliferation of narcotics on the street, this is one of the reasons I ran," Steven says.

This cycle he is squaring off against Rutherford County teacher Mariah Phillips in the Democratic primary in 2018.

Reynolds, who coached youth baseball for 17 years, tells the story of one Riverdale High School student who died of an overdose from cancer medication.

"How does a junior in high school or anybody get their hands on a stage IV cancer narcotic?" he asks. "We didn't have this when we were kids in the '70s and '80s."

Reynolds contends better control is needed in the chain of custody of opiates and opioids. A pharmaceutical database with better tracking could stop people from buying drugs in Franklin County, for example, then driving to Huntsville, Ala., to fill the same prescription, he says.

"Pill mills" in rural areas are another problem, places where prescriptions too often are being written for painkillers and other drugs by people who aren't "family doctors," Reynolds contends.

Reynolds also believes the federal government should decriminalize marijuana and place a 20 percent excise tax on it. Each state could decide whether to approve recreational or medical marijuana use, and the tax revenue from its sales could be used for rehabilitation, mental health care, education and the public defender's office, he says.

"Right now, marijuana, it's systemic racism," he argues, contending many young African-American kids can't afford an attorney if they're busted on a pot charge while many white kids can. Thus, Reynolds says, too many minority Tennesseans are being excluded from jobs, student loans and college because they couldn't hire an attorney to represent them on a minor marijuana arrest when they were teens.

"It seems counter-intuitive. It's very controversial here because of reefer madness and everything we've dealt with over the year. But let's be honest, anyone who wants to smoke marijuana in Tennessee or consume cannabis can do it at any time," Reynolds says.

Another problem, which can vary from state to state, lies with going after those who sell illicit drugs. In Brandon's case, they found the dealer's contact information on his cell phone. But in Florida, unless the transaction is physically witnessed, they said, the person can't be held responsible.

"We knew where it came from. We had the guy's number. We told the detectives," Steven says.

"And they did nothing. They put him in their database to keep an eye on him," Shelley adds. "This is a shame. This is something that needs to be changed. They need to be held responsible, because he was able to go back out there the next day and do the same thing. And the evidence is right there. It just doesn't seem right."

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