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County’s Drug-, Alcohol-Related Deaths Tripled in 2009

New report finds leading causes are ingesting toxic levels of prescription drugs, illegal substances or a combination of the two

Drug- and alcohol-related deaths nearly tripled in Santa Barbara County last year, according to recently released numbers from the county Coroner’s Office.

The number of deaths increased to 119 in 2009 from 39 in 2008, and 44 percent of those deaths were South Coast residents — from Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria or Isla Vista.

The leading causes of death in the report are linked to ingesting toxic levels of prescription drugs, illegal substances or a combination of both.

Santa Barbara County experiences an average of about 40 overdose deaths annually, according to numbers from 1999 to 2006 obtained from the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

Officials have had little time to analyze why the deaths have increased on such a scale.

Although the coroner’s office job is to determine the time and manner of death — not to interpret why the numbers are going up — sheriff’s Sgt. Gregg Weitzman said he has noticed an increase in deaths since 2007.

“We’re so busy dealing with these deaths, we don’t have time to analyze why they’re happening,” he said.

For years, however, Weitzman said the coroner’s office has noticed a “steady increase” in the overdose deaths in the county, as well as in suicides. Sixty suicides were recorded by the coroner’s office in 2009, up from 34 in 2008, although Weitzman also said accidental and natural deaths have been steadily rising as well.

Another trend the numbers show is an increase in alcohol and drug overdoses in young people. Overdose deaths among people age 30 or younger have nearly doubled since 2008, increasing to 24 percent of the deaths from 13 percent.

Suzanne Riordan, executive director at Families ACT!, a group dedicated to helping people with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, said the under-30 age group is at “tremendous risk.”

She said she and members of her group had attended an increase in memorial services last year and began querying the coroner’s office for statistics on the deaths. She said she is generally contacted by the parents or friends of people with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, three-quarters of whom are ages 18 to 29.

The report comes at a time when county services for those with drug, alcohol and mental health issues are on the chopping block.

In March, the county’s Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services approved cutting services for uninsured patients, including reducing beds for those needing to be checked in involuntarily.

That department is facing a $6.6 million shortfall, not including additional cuts that could come from the state, and it’s unclear how it will able to maintain levels of service with a shrinking budget. ADMHS director Ann Dietrich could not be reached for comment about the recent coroner’s report statistics.

County budget talks will continue in June, after a balanced budget is presented by the county Chief Executive Mike Brown. Until then, the cuts may not be fully realized, but the statistics from the previous year remain staggering.

“From where we are standing,” Riordan said, “we can see that we are dealing with a real crisis.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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