[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Day 6 in Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]
While prescription drug abuse and addiction can start with a legitimate prescription or self-medication, many South Coast college students end up in emergency rooms or treatment programs as the result of chasing a high.
“If there’s a combination someone can come up with to get high, they’ll do it,” UCSB police Detective David Millard said.
Recreational use of prescription or illicit drugs and alcohol — sometimes at the same time — is a frequent pastime for many people in the local college student population.
“The last three years, we’ve seen more students struggling with issues involving prescription drug abuse, and particularly opiates, and those are students who do come forward for help,” Kurta said. “They’re usually at a point where they’re struggling, tried to quit on their own and find their own methods to kick it, but found it too hard to stay in school and do that at the same time.”
Most of those students started using recreationally without being aware of the dangers of mixing drugs, she said.
Use of opiates is the biggest problem, and Kurta says many students draw the line at snorting or smoking and won’t inject them. Once needles are involved, a slew of other risks arise, like an increased chance of infection and overdose.
Young adults often use prescription drugs to get high in ways that have high risks of overdose: mixing them with large amounts of alcohol, mixing drugs together and taking them non-orally, treatment professionals say.
With many drugs, there’s a time-release formula meant to space out the effects, but if they’re crushed and snorted, a person will “get a rush unlike what is intended,” Kurta explained.
“The faster it gets to the brain, the faster it leaves, so a person needs to do more, more often, and in bigger doses” to feel the same effect, she said.
In Kurta’s experience, “the opiates in and of themselves tend not to kill people,” she said. “It’s the alcohol compounded on the effects of the opiate in terms of slowing down the central nervous system.”
UCSB’s Drug & Alcohol Program is behind campus educational campaigns urging students to party safe. If students drink, they are advised to do so in moderation, and if they “play around” with prescription drugs it’s a very bad idea — but combining the two is worse, Kurta said.
“There seems to be an attitude of invincibility,” he said.
Millard said he has confronted people who “looked horrible” and they told him they chugged a whole bottle of Robitussin and chased it with a beer.
Combining alcohol with Vicodin or Xanax — a strong anti-anxiety benzodiazepine — is also common right now.
UCSB Police Chief Dustin Olson said drug abuse among the student population is common, but for widely varying motives.
“We tend to see a lot of the college students, because of the challenges and trials and tribulations of academic rigor,” he said. “The Adderall, the Xanax, the Ritalin for the test anxiety, honing their study skills, staying up all night.
“It’s very challenging, because like most four-year schools, we’re like a small city. We have our own physicians, our own psychiatrists, and all of these folks who prescribe medications. We have our own pharmacy.”
Millard said he has only seen “a handful” of forged prescriptions in his 10 years at UCSB. He added that accessibility for students is mostly through parents, overprescribing physicians, doctor shopping and medical marijuana dispensaries.
Some students have been known to sell their extra drugs, too.
“Some of that medication makes its way out onto the streets of Isla Vista, and that’s something they’re subsidizing their college educations or their meager incomes with,” Olson said.
UCSB police work closely with the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, which is kept busy in the densely populated neighborhoods west of campus.
The college-aged community accounts for five to 10 alcohol overdoses every weekend, McCoy said. A “significant” number of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol’s calls for service are related to drugs or alcohol, he added.
“We see a lot of kids who are out trying to enhance their high,” McCoy said.
Any opiate-based narcotic depresses the central nervous system and “extends the length of the high,” he explained.
McCoy held up county Coroner’s Office reports and pointed to a few highlighted items, all of them related to young people.
“What we see from that oftentimes is deaths,” he said. “It’s pretty staggering when you look at that.”
There’s no denying that Isla Vista is and probably always will be a hub for college parties, but the message from Kurta’s program is simple: party safe.
The Drug & Alcohol Program releases guides with tips for party throwers and partygoers to keep people from drinking themselves into dangerous situations.
A new public relations campaign is called “Just Call 9-1-1,” and Kurta said UCSB wants to dispense with myths of expense or getting in trouble for calling an ambulance to help a friend.
“We’re trying to break through that,” Olson agreed.
UCSB has been notifying parents as well to help students understand the risk and not be afraid of repercussions if they call.
Medical calls are the priority of first responders, even law enforcement. If someone is showing warning signs of alcohol or drug overdose, people are asked to call 9-1-1 immediately.
“Typically what we do is call an ambulance; that’s a life-saving call,” McCoy said. “We’re not going to try to file charges. We don’t need to have somebody die to try and get an arrest in.
“We’re about saving lives as much as anybody else is.”
Kurta has heard students worry about the cost of an ambulance, as well. The campaign makes it very clear that it’s free for an ambulance to come out and evaluate someone who may have overdosed, while Undergraduate Student Health Insurance covers the cost of one ambulance ride per year.
If students come in for help, counseling is completely free, she added.
The 1,200 students who are mandated to participate in one of the five-week programs will first be referred to UCSB’s College Alcohol and Substance Education program, or CASE, which stresses the perspective that “It’s against the law, but if you do it anyway, be safe,” Kurta said.
If referred again, students must enter the process-oriented Skills Awareness and Motivation program, or SAM, and maybe Insight, a smaller group approach with individual sessions that help identify what changes need to be made.
The 6-year-old CASE program has developed a reputation, and many students remember their time fondly because they got to talk about things they couldn’t discuss anywhere else, Kurta said.
Her staff tells the students: “We didn’t refer you here but we’re glad you are here.”