[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.]

Name: Shereen Khatapoush

Location: Santa Barbara

Occupation: Youth drug abuse worker

Shereen Khatapoush chose her career path when she was 15 years old.

“One of my best friends let someone who had been drinking drive her car, there were four people in the car and three of them died,” she said. “It was in my early formative years when I learned what real damage alcohol and other drugs can cause. This can be prevented, I thought. Lives could be saved.”

Khatapoush is now Youth Services System director of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse. The program provides drug-related education, prevention and intervention for middle and high school students throughout Santa Barbara County.

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Khatapoush graduated from UCSB, where she started a Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter to demonstrate what poor judgement can lead to.

She joined CADA in 1993, a year after it was awarded a $3 million Fighting Back grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to combat alcohol and drug abuse.

“There’s a large substance abuse problem in this area,” Khatapoush said. “We live in a community and culture that is conducive (for abuse) for a number of reasons.”

One of the main factors behind substance abuse is accessibility. Santa Barbara is a tourist destination and has a high number of off- and on-sale outlets, she said.

When it comes to prescription medications, doctors are overprescribing pills and that prescription can sometimes lead to a false sense of security, Khatapoush said.

“A lot of it comes from a take-a-pill culture,” she said. “Drug companies are doing a good job pushing pills and doctors are writing more prescriptions, so it’s more available. People have a perception of safety (when it comes to prescription drugs).”

According to a 2010-2011 Santa Barbara County study, 17 percent of high school juniors have tried prescription pain killers at least once.

“There is a lot less stigma associated with taking a pill,” Khatapoush said. “It’s not like injecting or snorting something so people feel more safe.”

Khatapoush said one of the most effective ways to deter prescription drug abuse is educating parents through programs like Operation Medicine Cabinet, a joint effort between the Sheriff’s Department and the county Public Works Department. The two agencies have installed secure drop boxes at nine sheriff’s substations so residents can get rid of all types of unwanted medications, including prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs.

“There needs to be education and supply reduction,” she said. “Doctors need to be more conscious of the prescriptions being written and people need to understand if they don’t take their full course of medication there are easy ways to dispose of what they don’t use.”

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Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at akacik@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.