[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Noozhawk’s special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]
Experts on prescription drug misuse and abuse spoke about the growing problem at a public forum Wednesday hosted by Carpinteria Cares for Youth and inspired by Noozhawk’s Prescription for Abuse series.
Law enforcement, medical personnel and treatment specialists all agreed that education is the single most important preventive tool. Being aware of the problem, talking about it openly with family and friends, and controlling access to commonly abused drugs can save lives.
“Listen to your Spidey sense,” said Sgt. Sandra Brown, supervisor of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Coroner’s Office. “I know it sounds goofy, but we all have it. When something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right.”
Brown said she has seen plenty of drug- and alcohol-related overdoses in her work, with 23 fatalities in the first six months of 2011.
Poly drug use — a combination of different drugs and sometimes alcohol — is the biggest concern, since it’s “very, very, very uncommon to see one drug on board when we test these people,” she said.
Property crime detectives say that in almost every burglary they see now, prescription drugs are taken, according to Brown. Although prescription drugs look pristine, Vicodin and a bag of methamphetamines can be just as dangerous.
“You’re playing Russian roulette with your life,” she said.
Brown’s office recently performed an autopsy on a 22-year-old woman whose 4-year-old daughter woke up in the morning and found her dead. The young woman had a history of drug and alcohol use, and it could have been a contributor to her death, according to Brown.
“She had her whole life ahead of her,” she said.
Painkillers are heavily abused, a problem faced by local emergency rooms and other medical personnel. The drugs help people when used appropriately, Dr. Chris Lambert said, but health-care practitioners also work to identify chronic pain patients who are misusing or abusing their medication.
Lambert is the director of Cottage Health System’s Frequent Opiate User Program and deals with chronic pain patients, addicts and “professional” drug seekers.
He said a long-acting pain pill combined with a sedative and shots of tequila will result in a trip to the hospital, most likely on a ventilator and close to death.
Poly drug use can be recreational, especially among young people, and Lambert urged the teens at Wednesday’s forum to watch out for their friends, and have the intelligence and courage to call 9-1-1 if there’s a problem.
“These drugs are great drugs, but users have the thought process that if someone, somewhere, prescribed them for someone, they’re OK,” he said. “There’s not the stigma of cocaine or heroin.”
Lambert told the harrowing story of a 22-year-old man about to graduate from UCSB on the Dean’s List. As an end-of-year celebration, he had five drinks and an anti-anxiety pill, and a friend gave him an Opana — a long-acting, morphine-like pain pill. Opana has a nine-hour half-life, so it can take up to 18 hours for most of the drug to be out of someone’s system.
Lambert said opiates like that are respiratory depressants, so people with high doses literally forget to breathe. The young man laid down on the couch and his friends thought nothing of it, but paramedics were called in the morning.
“He was as close to being dead as I’ve ever seen, and lived,” said Lambert, adding that the patient was resuscitated, put on a ventilator and had a stroke, heart attack, and damage to his kidneys and liver.
There was one vital clue: The young man was snoring loudly, with a strange sound to it. Brown said 99 percent of investigations in which someone witnessed the overdosed person included a report of that unique snoring sound.
“Some near-deaths could have been resuscitated but were tucked in for bed,” she said.
Lambert urged young people to be responsible for themselves and friends, and, above all, to celebrate in moderation. There may be a culture of fear around doing something wrong and peer pressure not to “tell” on people, but getting someone help is absolutely vital. Plus, law enforcement and medical personnel are not interested in getting someone in trouble; they are in the business of saving lives for those 9-1-1 calls, he added.
“For heaven’s sake, you should never mix — never mix and match,” Lambert said. “He was that close to being in Sandra Brown’s morgue.”
Isla Vista’s Halloween weekend sent 50 college and high school students to the emergency room on Saturday night alone, and at least 20 percent of them took drugs in addition to binge drinking.
Daniel Bryant Youth and Family Treatment Center counselors Martin Levya and Heather Holt work with a lot of local young people and say prescription drugs have a lesser stigma than illegal drugs.
“If they’re not busted for it, they don’t see it as a problem,” Levya said.
Many teenagers report using marijuana and alcohol, but when pressed, say they have taken prescription drugs that they don’t even recognize, sometimes handed to them by a parent. For some, he said, “these kids’ parents are playing doctor, and it’s very dangerous.”
Holt said that when using drugs and alcohol recreationally, teenagers generally won’t take mixtures and side effects into account. Most overdoses are accidental, often because the users are clueless to the danger of mixing.
As a counselor, Holt said she often deals with the underlying problem that drives young people to use alcohol or drugs. Many teenagers start abusing drugs with a legitimate prescription, such as Adderall, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Parents should hold on to prescriptions and give them out dose by dose, instead of letting young people manage their own drugs, she suggested. One particular young woman got her doctor to triple her dosage so she could use it, abuse it and sell the rest for $20 a pill.
Other experts in the field, local students and families attended the forum and asked questions of the panel.
Levya explained that addressing a friend or family member head-on about his or her problem is the best approach.
Brown listed some of the physical and behavioral warning signs of abuse or addiction, which include unexplained change in personality, sudden mood swings, periods of unusual hyperactivity, lack of motivation and work ethic, weight loss, tremors, slurred speech, deterioration of physical appearance, change in appetite or sleep patterns, borrowing money or stealing, secretive or suspicious behavior, and change in friends or hobbies.