When it comes to prescription drug abuse, the statistics are about as subtle as a cruise ship in the Santa Barbara Channel. Twelve percent of kids in the county have tried prescription drugs four or more times by ninth grade. Drug and alcohol deaths in Santa Barbara — most involving prescription drugs — have numbered 49, 55, 75, 63, 44, and 49 over the past six years. Nationwide, one out of five high school students have tried a prescription drug without doctor’s orders. These are some of the grim statistics that attendees learned at a forum hosted by the Alcohol and Drug Advisory Board Tuesday night.
The forum in a packed Faulkner Gallery began with a short documentary film called Behind the Orange Curtain, featuring addicts who had survived near-fatal overdoses but with brains that, like Humpty Dumpty, will never be put back together again. Rachel McDuffee, clinic manager for Aegis Medical Systems, which offers replacement therapy for addicts, told The Santa Barbara Independent that just that day she had admitted three teenagers. The most popularly abused prescription drugs are painkillers (Oxycontin, Vicodin), depressants (Valium, Xanax) and stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall). Kids often get hooked on prescription drugs, but when they become too expensive they move on to street narcotics like heroin, said McDuffee.
Or they head to emergency rooms, said Dr. Chris Flynn, who sat on a panel with McDuffee, Sheriff Bill Brown, and city police detective Daniel Tagles. Flynn — an ER doctor and one of the whistleblowers who reported over-prescription by the “Candy Man” Dr. Julio Diaz, a Milpas Street practitioner — said that pain medication is useful, but patients should be weaned as soon as possible. Diaz did “great work,” he said, but at some point he lost his way. Drugs prescribed by Diaz, who was arrested in January 2012, led to 11 fatal doses between 2006 and 2011.
In a question-and-answer session, two audience members raised concerns about area doctors they believe are prescribing pain medication to addicts. One, who did not want to be named, said that she thought her sister had finally hit rock bottom recently when she said she needed help and asked to be taken to the hospital. It turned out, however, that she was just scheming to get more drugs after rifling through a prescription from last month. She was not given drugs in the ER, as Flynn explained, “We don’t get conned anymore,” primarily because of better sharing of information between health professionals. It is easier to see if and when a patient has filled prescriptions.
Many drugs, however, are accessible without a doctor’s note. James Joyce of State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s staff said that only 40-50 percent of the $26 billion worth of pharmaceuticals sold in California each year are used. One of the characters in the documentary pointed out that antidepressants are as common as makeup remover in the medicine cabinets of Southern California moms.
That’s why the senator has proposed a bill, SB 727, that would require pharmaceutical manufacturers to fund a collection system for unused drugs. Sheriff Brown and Detective Tagles shared information about drop boxes for prescriptions, located at all Sheriff’s Department substations and by the old St. Francis Hospital and Eastside Library. The county collected 1,300 pounds of pharmaceuticals last year, said Brown. The drugs are destroyed at an L.A. County incinerator.
“Prescription drug abuse and accidental overdose … transcends everyone in the socioeconomic spectrum,” said Brown. According to statistics provided to The Independent by the Public Health Department on deaths due to accidental poisoning by drugs or other biological substances between 2008 and 2010, however, the victims were overwhelmingly male and white.