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September 1, 2013

Cullman DEA agent hosting classes to inform residents about dangerous drugs

CULLMAN — At times, the women laughed, and other times, they gasped in shock.

They asked questions and sometimes shared their personal experiences with a friend or relative in the depths of an all-consuming drug addiction. Using horrifying photos of the physical scars — rotten, broken teeth and abscessed wounds from compulsive skin picking and scratching — methamphetamine addiction can leave behind and the heart-wrenching stories of young adults whose lives were cut short from accidental overdoses, Matt Gentry is trying to shine a light on the dark and dangerous world of drug trafficking and drug addiction.

Those who attend the classes often walk away knowing  more than they probably ever wanted to know about illicit narcotics and the corrosive effect they have on those caught in its grip.

The goal of the classes hosted by Cullman native Gentry, a task force agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Birmingham Field Office, is to inform residents of emerging drug trends and how to be pro-active in identifying signs of someone in trouble and how to get them help. 

“It’s our job as law enforcement officers to not only enforce the laws but also educate the community about the dangers of drugs so people can know the signs and what to look for to keep their children and families safe,” Gentry said.

Gentry previously served as head of the Cullman County Drug Task Force before he took his current job at the DEA where he works with 12 other agents on high-level federal drug cases that can cross state lines. Although he’s assigned to the DEA, he also serves as investigator for the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office.

A recent class at Cullman’s Oxford Healthcare, nurses and home health aides learned how drugs are smuggled into the United States from Mexico and how those drug proceeds fuel violence. Marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, meth, prescription drugs and heroin were all touched on, from how they’re produced to their devastating effects.

For more than a decade, methamphetamine has been the county’s most prevalent narcotic, but Gentry said that is changing with the influx of heroin from Birmingham.

“Heroin is here now, it’s peaking and it’s only going to get worse,” Gentry said. “We began seeing the shift from cocaine to heroin in Birmingham beginning around 2009. There’s been a shortage of cocaine, so the drug traffickers have been flooding the market with heroin.”

Between 2009 and fall 2012, 132 people have died from heroin overdoes in Jefferson and Shelby counties combined, statistics show. That’s a disturbing trend for law enforcement, he said.

“We’re seeing healthy young people dying from this because don’t understand the dosage,” Gentry said. “People who have been hooked on prescription medication can get an even bigger high that can be fatal for much cheaper with heroin.”

The opiate has been historically found in big cities like New York and Boston, but it seems to be growing in popularity in the Southeast with the younger generation, he said.

“People need to talk to their kids, be involved in their lives and make them understand they need to make the decision now not to do to drugs, not when they’re already at a party,” Gentry said. “Heroin is a very different animal because it can kill you just like that.”

For more information or to schedule a class, contact Matt Gentry at the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office at 256-736-2800.

‰Tiffeny Owens can be reached email at towens@cullmantimes.com or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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