Looking back, Peter Phillips has all the answers.

He only wishes that he had that knowledge when he was faced with one of the darkest days of his life.

John Reagan Phillips, his son, died at age 19 on Nov. 3, 2005, of a heroin overdose. His girlfriend, who was with him when he didn't wake up that morning, was afraid to call 911 because she was unaware of the implications it would carry.

"She woke up with him dead next to her," said Peter Phillips. He said John had an inclination toward addiction from a very young age, reaching into marijuana experimentation in the sixth grade.

"All the things we as parents tried to help him," Phillips said. "Many times, it looked like maybe we were winning . . . but we lost."

In an effort to increase the channels of communication among parents and their teens, the Harm Reduction Project sponsored a forum at the University of Utah recently to discuss the realities of drug use and overdose and its increasing number of victims in Utah.

"They know they're not doing the right thing, yet they keep doing it," said Jack Plumb, who lost his son, Andrew, to a heroin overdose 10 years ago. He said education is the means by which the community can be aware and actually combat some of the issues surrounding drug use.

"I am a father who has come forth to acknowledge the fact that we have a problem," he said. He admonished anyone going through what he did to "never give up hope."

The Harm Reduction Project began focusing on drug abuse problems when the number of drug overdose victims surpassed those dying from HIV. The forum included first-hand accounts of the harm caused by ignorance and misinformation on drugs teens are experimenting with.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has partnered with the project in showcasing the faces of Zachary Martinez and Amelia Sorich, who both suffered untimely deaths from drug overdoses at age 18, in a billboard advertisement campaign aimed at encouraging people to call 911 when they are with someone who has overdosed.

"We know there will be young people using drugs regardless of prevention programs and we need to equip them with good, honest information, which will reduce the harm they cause to themselves and their families," Anderson said. He hopes the campaign will mobilize the community to make decisions on how they will act when the situation presents itself.

"The price is way too high to not talk about this openly in our society," he said. "We need to stand up on this issue and demand honesty and integrity from our resources."

According to the office of the medical examiner, unintentional injuries, which include motor vehicle accidents and drug overdose, are the No. 1 cause of death among young people. In 2004, 123 lives were claimed by such injuries. A total of 190 Utahns died from accidental drug overdose and, for the first time, the state placed in the top five ranking of the nation's overdose rates.

"And these deaths are entirely preventable," said Christy Porucznik, Utah Department of Health researcher.

The forum was the first of its kind, as Anderson said "a different segment of the community is here and is ready to address these issues with integrity."

The Harm Reduction Project plans to continue to involve the community in solving such problems and preventing overdose deaths. More information on their vision can be found on their Web site, www. harmredux.org.

"We worked hard to educate ourselves and our son about drugs," Phillips said. "I look back and we didn't know s---. We were blinded by hope. My son is now in ashes in a jar in the closet of his bedroom.

"I only want one thing and that is which I cannot have, and that is a second chance to save my son."


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com