KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - We will be ending 2017 with a significant increase in the number of suspected drug overdose deaths.
The Knox County District Attorney's office has tallied up 266 suspected overdose deaths so far in 2017, that's up compared to last year with 224 deaths. Just this month alone, there have been 11 overdose deaths reported.
District Attorney Charme Allen said through the overdose task force formed earlier this year, investigators and her team have spent more time with the families impacted by these deaths.
"It's not just the addict affected. It's their friends and family," said Allen. "It's heartbreaking. No one wants to lose a loved one.".
Sabina Cason lost her son to an overdose last year. She said it is a difficult time of year for her family, but they want others to know you are not alone. She said help from the support of family and the community helps bring strength during difficult times.
"It means a lot. The hurt goes away and the memories stay," said Cason
To help families like the Cason's, the District Attorney's office has set up an overdose memorial Christmas tree outside their office. They invite family members of those loved ones who have passed to place an ornament on the tree in their memory.
Allen said more families are impacted by this epidemic than ever before. For the first time this year, Fentynal, a very powerful drug, is identified as the number one drug in many of these overdose cases.
"It's being cut into heroine, used to press pills. People think they are getting a pill, a xanax and they are not," said Allen.
Allen wants drug dealers to know they are prosecuting these cases on a new level since forming the overdose task force. Since Early March they have charged eleven people with second degree murder in connection to overdose deaths.
"We are trying to hit drug dealers hard," said Allen. "When you sell that drug to somebody and they die, even down the line, we're coming after you for a homicide."
A bold message as they continue to fight against the drug epidemic while helping those families cope with the pain of losing a loved one.
"We've seen the heartbreak and the pain for those who are losing their loved ones, so we are trying to balance that, hit drug dealers but also be compassionate and help those who have lost loved ones remember them at Christmas.," said Allen.
The task force has teamed up with Knoxville Police Department to offer a support group for families affected by the opioid epidemic. The meetings are held monthly at the police department safety building.