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Prescription for Abuse

Quiet Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse Taking a Toll on Santa Barbara County

Evidence of addiction shows an alarming escalation, Noozhawk finds in Prescription for Abuse special report

American Medical Response emergency medical technicians arrive at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with little time to spare for victims of prescription drug overdoses.
American Medical Response emergency medical technicians arrive at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with little time to spare for victims of prescription drug overdoses.  (Nick St.Oegger / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Day 1 in Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]

Many Americans might cite cocaine or heroin if asked to identify the country’s leading cause of overdose deaths.

Wrong answer.

Nationally, prescription medications are involved in more such deaths than cocaine and heroin combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Santa Barbara County has been mirroring that troubling trend.

Local addiction experts and law enforcement officials have been saying for years that Santa Barbara County has a drug problem, and an examination of county Coroner’s Office records reveals that the perception is actually the reality.

                                Prescription for Abuse  |  Complete Series Index  |

Drug- and alcohol-related deaths have nearly doubled in Santa Barbara County between 2005 and 2009, to 111 from 60. And the records show that more victims are ending up in the Coroner’s Office with the presence of prescription drugs in their systems. In fact, officials say it’s no longer unusual to find as many as 15 different prescription medications, in addition to cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines, and alcohol and marijuana.

Noozhawk first became aware of these numbers in the course of its daily reporting in mid-2010. The high number of fatal overdoses in 2009 meant officials couldn’t analyze why the deaths were occurring because they were coming in so quickly.

Noozhawk realized the issue deserved a closer look and decided to use its California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism as the opportunity to do so.

Noozhawk staff requested data spanning 2005 to 2009 from the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the Coroner’s Office. That documentation led to the discovery that morphine, a prescription medication, was the most prominent drug found in the systems of fatal overdose victims, second only to methamphetamines.

The list also included methadone, opiates and benzodiazpenes.

The list of the top drugs found from the five-year span:

» Methamphetamine

» Morphine

» Hydrocodone

» Methadone

» Diazepam

» Cocaine

» Nordiazepam

» Marijuana

» Codeine

» Hydrocodol

In 2009, morphine was the most common drug found in the toxicology reports, just after caffeine and cotinine, a byproduct of cigarette smoke. Methamphetamines dropped to seventh on the list for that year, preceded by prescription drugs like methadone and Clonazepam.

Prescription medications in and of themselves aren’t a problem when they have a purpose and are used as prescribed by a doctor, said Dr. Sherif El-Asyouty of Recovery Road Medical Center, an outpatient addiction treatment program in Santa Barbara.

“They become drugs when they are used for different reasons than what was intended, or in larger amounts or when you get them outside the prescribing source,” he said.

Throughout Noozhawk’s interviews, a common perception emerged among drug users: a prescription drug must be safe because a doctor provided it. Lisa W., a former addict who spoke with Noozhawk on the condition that her full name not be used, said a physician wrote her a prescription for opiates for treatment of back pain. She used that as justification for taking large amounts of the pills, even though she had a history of heroin abuse.

“I was thinking, “This is a prescription, you got it through a doctor so it’s OK, you can take these,” she said.

The mother of three eventually became hooked, began injecting the drugs for a faster high and nearly died after a staph infection from a dirty needle reached her heart.

Lisa also saw prescription drug abuse rip apart her family after she and her husband were arrested for drug possession. They were charged with child endangerment and lost custody of their youngest child.

“Addiction had robbed us of everything, including our good sense, including the love that we had for our kids,” she said.

The larger costs of dealing with drug abuse add up quickly. On the law enforcement side, more than 80 percent of those in jail are there for drug- and alcohol-related crimes, according to Chuck McClain, supervisor of the Sheriff’s Treatment Program at the County Jail and a former addict himself.

Prescription drugs can be the bridge back to addiction for a recovering addict, according to McClain.

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people who’ve had several or many years of sobriety, and all of a sudden they have a back problem or something like that and the doctor gives them a pain pill and these people are no longer sober,” he said.

“They’re back to their old drug of choice along with their prescription.”

Doctors who overprescribe, ways the regulatory and control systems fall short, treatment and resources, and public awareness and education are all topics Noozhawk will be exploring throughout this six-week series. But with every article, Noozhawk is hopeful of keeping the reader focused on the most important part: the human toll prescription drug abuse can — and is — taking on Santa Barbara County.

Just a week before Noozhawk talked with McClain, he had learned of a previous Sheriff’s Treatment Program client dying of overdose.

“He had several years of sobriety and all of a sudden he had some problems ... and was on some pain meds, came in and out of here on a regular basis after that and OD’d last week,” he told Noozhawk in July.

“He’s gone ... So his family is left with an emotional wreckage that’s unbelievable.”

                                Prescription for Abuse  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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