Hundreds of people packed into the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery on Tuesday night to hear a set of panelists discuss prescription drug abuse, an enduring problem in Santa Barbara County.

The event was spearheaded by the Santa Barbara County Advisory Board on Alcohol and Drug Problems, and is one of three forums scheduled to look at the issue.

An impressive panel was on hand Tuesday night, made up of Dr. Rachel McDuffy, clinical director with Aegis, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, Cottage Hospital Medical Director Chris Flynn and Santa Barbara Police Department Detective Dan Tagles.

Brown said he has seen the effects of overdose in his work as a paramedic and as a law enforcement leader. He said one incident presented itself when an employee at a former agency was injured in a motorcycle accident, became addicted and overdosed.

Brown said the Coroner’s Office records an average of about 50 deaths a year because of prescription drug overdose in Santa Barbara County.

“There’s a perception that because a drug is prescribed … it is somehow safe,” he said. “The reality is if it’s used recklessly or in conjunction with other drugs.”

Access is too easy, and the department has begun Operation Medicine Cabinet, which collects unused drugs at all of the Sheriff’s Department substations. Click here for locations.

Brown was one of several speakers to mention Noozhawk’s series exploring prescription drug abuse in the county. Click here for an index of those stories.

Flynn spoke about his perspective from Cottage Hospital’s emergency room.

“Everyone in this room is addicted to something,” he said, adding that prescription drug abuse can begin when medications fall into the hands of someone with a brain chemistry that predisposes them toward that type of addiction.

Flynn said that the way doctors manage chronic pain continues to evolve. One tool that has made things easier for doctors is use of the CURES database, which allows doctors to see how much and which medications a patient has been prescribed in the past.

“We don’t get conned anymore” by people coming into the ER just for pills, he said.

Last January’s arrest of Dr. Julio Diaz was also on the minds of several speakers, including Flynn.

Diaz was arrested Jan. 4, 2012, by Drug Enforcement Administration agents for distribution of controlled substances outside the scope of professional practice and without legitimate medical purpose out of his clinic at 510 N. Milpas St. in Santa Barbara.

A grand jury issued an eight-page indictment against Diaz before his arrest, alleging that his drug-prescribing habits were related to nearly a dozen deaths among his patients and hundreds of visits to local emergency rooms.

Diaz is still awaiting trial, but he faces a total sentence of 300 years if convicted — 20 years for each of the seven counts of distribution, and 40 years for each of the four distribution counts to people younger than age 21.

Flynn said Diaz did a lot of good in the community, working in the Hispanic community and with nursing home patients, but at some point, doctors like Flynn began to notice that Diaz’s patients were ending up more and more in the emergency room. After Diaz’s program was shut down, hundreds of his patients flooded the emergency room with withdrawal symptoms, Flynn said.

Tuesday’s program included a screening of the short film Behind the Orange Curtain, which documents the stories behind prescription drug abuse in Southern California.

Numerous leaders in the drug treatment and medical community attended Tuesday night’s meeting, as well as policymakers, including county Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf, as well as James Joyce, representing state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson’s office.

Joyce said Jackson is the driving force behind Senate Bill 727, a bill that would require pharmaceutical producers to operate take-back programs for unused prescription drugs. The bill is in committee.

Less than half of the $26 billion of pharmaceuticals sold in California are actually consumed, Joyce said, and the bill asks companies to be responsible for those drugs.

Moderator Dave Novis thanked the audience for attending and encouraged the discussion to continue.

“We need more of this,” he said, adding that people can immediately help stem the problem by locking up prescriptions that are needed and disposing of any unused drugs. “Treatment is available, but let’s work on prevention at the same time.”

The next forum is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Little Auditorium of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, 2975 E. Highway 246 in Santa Ynez.

The third and final one is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Shephard Hall of the Santa Maria Main Library, 421 S. McClelland St.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.