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UC Santa Barbara Forum Centers on Dramatic Rise in Prescription-Drug Abuse

Panel of mental health expert, physicians, policymakers discuss prevention efforts during the growing epidemic

A panel of experts gathered at the Isla Vista Theatre last week to discuss the dangerous rise in prescription drug abuse.
A panel of experts gathered at the Isla Vista Theatre last week to discuss the dangerous rise in prescription drug abuse.        (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

A group of Santa Barbara-area experts gathered last week to discuss the current epidemic of prescription-drug abuse.

The free, two-hour event was meant to offer practical tips for college students, parents, educators and others on how to save the lives of those abusing prescription painkillers — deaths that now outpace the number of people who die from all illicit drugs, including heroin and cocaine, combined.

“We now have a crisis,” said Dr. Paul Erickson, chief of psychiatry at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Erickson sat on the panel Thursday night at the Isla Vista Theater, hosted by the UC Santa Barbara Alcohol and Drug Program and fellow public health sponsors.

Until the 1980s, doctors prescribed opiate pain medicine conservatively, only to those with terminal illnesses or post-surgery patients, Erikson said. Once doctors started recommending drugs for pain management, patients began abusing them, he said.

And when hospitals finally cracked down on folks going to different doctors to get more painkillers, he said, drugs like heroin became more readily available.

“Those people who are surveyed for abusing heroin transitioned to that use after abusing prescription opioids,” said Karen Szumlinski, a UCSB professor of psychological and brain sciences.

Szumlinski said heroin is highly addictive, with more than 20 percent of those who try it becoming hooked.

In Santa Barbara County, some 31 percent of surveyed patients listed heroin or prescription drugs as their drug of choice, according to John Doyel, the County Department of Behavioral Wellness’s alcohol and drug program director.

Even a couple years ago, that number was closer to 9 percent, he said.

“In this society, buyer beware,” Doyel said.

“Drugs of choice come and go. Some are a lot worse than others. Opioids are one of the worst. We are absolutely astounded at the heroin epidemic. (People) take too much, they mix, they go to sleep, and they don’t wake up.”

He said his department planned to give away hundreds of naloxone kits to residents who were most likely to witness a drug overdose so they could act quickly to save lives.

The panel was rounded out with state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and UCSB student Cooper Iven, who took off spring semester to get sober from prescription-drug and alcohol use.

At nine months sober, Iven attested to the ease of finding prescription drugs if you really want them.

Jackson shared her mission to get pharmaceutical companies — a billion-dollar-a-year industry — to pay for disposing of drugs after they expire.

Santa Barbara County is looking at passing a drug take-back ordinance, she said.

She also proposed SB 1229 to make it easier for pharmacies to host secure drug take-back bins.

The panel coincided with the university’s fourth annual dodgeball tournament last Saturday in honor of AJ Torchon, a 19-year-old UCSB student who died in 2012 after overdosing on a painkiller normally prescribed for hospice patients.

Dr. Jacqueline Kurta, director of UCSB’s Alcohol and Drug program, read a note and played a video featuring Torchon's parents. 

In it, they acknowledged difficulty in talking about drug abuse, but underlined the importance of making sure no other family has to go through their pain.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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