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Chattanooga advocates talk overdose awareness and prevention as fentanyl use, deaths rise

By Eric Benninghoff | News Channel 9

CHATTANOOGA, Tn. — Chattanooga is not immune to the drug overdose crisis observed throughout the U.S.

City police say fentanyl use has 'increased significantly' over the past couple years. So too, has the number of fatal drug overdoses, according to Chattanooga Police Department data.

On Wednesday, we saw how one mother's tragedy ultimately transformed her life's work, and how she and others are trying to break the stigma surrounding substance abuse, while preventing more deaths.

Mother Debra Clark says her son T.C. was a ‘force to be reckoned with.'

"He was very fun loving, he always wanted to be the center of attention," Clark told us Wednesday. "He definitely let you know when he was in the room. His laugh was infectious."

In 2019, she lost him to a fentanyl overdose. He was only 25.

"It's a constant thing. It never goes away. It never ever goes away," Clark said, explaining that she thinks about T.C. every day.

Debra Clark with her son T.C., who passed away from a fentanyl overdose in 2019 (Image: Courtesy of Debra Clark).

But through the tragedy she found her life’s work, as an overdose prevention specialist with the Hamilton County Coalition.

"I just knew right then this is where I needed to be. I needed them. And I felt like they needed me," said Clark. "I think me doing this work helps me live with it, because I share [T.C.] in every one of my classes."

Chattanooga Police data shows T.C. is far from alone. With increased fentanyl use, has also come a significant rise in drug overdose deaths over the past several years.

Data courtesy of the Chattanooga Police Department shows fatal drug overdoses in Chattanooga by year since 2017 (Image: courtesy of CPD).

"Fentanyl has been around for a minute now, but it is increasing. And unfortunately, more drugs are being laced with the fentanyl," explained Calandra Smith, Programs Manager for Intervention & Prevention Services with the Hamilton County Coalition. "You never know how much you're going to get. And it's such a strong medication, it's not meant to be used in that way. And so unfortunately, you see overdoses and you see overdose deaths."

Smith says the Hamilton County Coalition works with partners to provide education and awareness surrounding substance abuse prevention, while also helping those who have substance abuse disorders.

"One of the first things to combatting overdoses is learning and recognizing the signs of an overdose," she told us, listing unconsciousness, unresponsiveness, changing colors, clammy skin, and not breathing as some of those signs.

Calandra Smith is the Programs Manager for Intervention and Prevention Services with the Hamilton County Coalition (Image: WTVC).

Smith and Clark agree the end goal for drug users needs to be recovery.

"But we do have to keep them alive until we can get them to that point," Clark told us.

A new Tennessee law aims to help do that, by decriminalizing the possession of test strips that can identify if a drug is laced with fentanyl, as long as the testing equipment is not possessed for the purposes of manufacturing, delivering or selling a controlled substance.

"I think the goal is to let individuals know what they have. And to just understand that there's a higher risk with taking this medication," Smith told us, adding that the law could help keep more people out of jail.

"Now they're making it where they can get these [testing strips], and they're not going to get in trouble for having it," added Clark, explaining that before this law, if someone was found with a fentanyl test strip, they could be prosecuted for having it as drug paraphernalia.

But Clark says decriminalizing the test strips alone won’t stop the fentanyl use problem.

"If [the test strip is] used correctly, yes, it'll save lives. If it is being used incorrectly to look for fentanyl, because that's what they're looking for, then that's a different story," she said. "We got to make sure that they are in the right hands, and they're being used for the correct reason."

That's part of why she says reducing stigma through overdose awareness trainings and substance abuse education must continue to be priorities, along with creating a path toward treatment and recovery.

"It's a disease, and it can be treated, but we've got to quit being judgmental toward people," Clark concluded.

Debra Clark is a Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist with the Hamilton County Coalition (Image: WTVC).

The Hamilton County Coalition offers free overdose awareness and substance abuse trainings for anyone who’s interested.

Smith says the trainings discuss addiction, the stigma around addiction, recognizing overdoses, and how to use Naloxone to help reverse overdoses, among other topics.

You can sign up by going to their website,

The Hamilton County Health Department also passed along this message:

"If you or someone you know needs help combatting addiction, the TN Redline is a free 24/7/365 resource for substance misuse treatment referrals. Please visit the Hamilton County Health Department’s Overdose Prevention webpage for additional resources."

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