In response to the rash of heroin overdoses last week, and hoping to generate public awareness for their cause, a group of advocates gathered outside the Santa Barbara Courthouse yesterday to talk about the troubles faced by area residents who suffer both mental health issues and drug addictions.
Sponsored by Families ACT!, a grassroots organization formed in 2007 to address what it feels are policies that lead to the unnecessary and oftentimes cyclical incarceration of people with co-occurring disorders, the event kicked off a series of forums, teach-ins, and press conferences scheduled for the coming months. The efforts will culminate, organizers said, in the November election when Measure S (the local jail tax measure) and Proposition 19 (the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010) hit the ballot.
Families ACT! founder and director Suzanne Riordan said the system of locking up Santa Barbara residents for drug offenses “has got to change,” explaining that stays in residential treatment facilities, compared to jail or prison stints, are much more effective in changing lives for the better. She also said the criminal justice system makes it so that residents who are struggling with addiction and mental disorders are reticent to seek help in the right ways. “We want to bring this whole issue of drug use and drug overdose out from the shadows, out from under the veil of stigma, shame, guilt, and grief,” she said.
Riordan praised the recent actions of a group of people who dropped off one of their overdosing friends at Cottage Hospital last week, saying they were brave to face arrest in the pursuit of medical help. She said such actions are rare, and the stigma of drug use oftentimes makes people act out of desperation. Her own son, she explained, overdosed in 2005 as he was taking drugs with a group of men. On probation, he was facing jail time because of a relapse. Instead of calling paramedics, the men wrapped his body in a white sheet and hid him under a nearby building. His body wasn’t discovered for three weeks.
Riordan said hundreds of families were asked to participate in the press conference in order to speak up about the need for more residential treatment beds — of which there are almost none in the county — but were too afraid to attend. “Drug use is not a crime, it’s a mental health issue,” she said. “We’ve got to turn this around.” She implored that the money going toward the construction of jails and prisons should instead be funneled into the implementation of treatment programs, explaining after the conference that she and her group are torn when it comes to Measure S. While the half-cent sales tax would be used mainly to pay for a new North County jail, she explained, 16 percent of the revenue generated — $5 million — would go toward preventing recidivism.
She also explained that while Families ACT! unofficially agrees with some of the arguments behind Prop. 19, it’s not because she or others “like pot. I don’t like any drugs,” she said. But, the decriminalization of small amounts of illegal drugs will keep people out of jail who have no business being there, she stated. “If we don’t begin to change our drug laws, this [problem] will never go away,” Riordan said.
City Councilmember Grant House spoke next, echoing the message that services for those with co-occurring disorders are simply not adequate and that Santa Barbara — like many other communities throughout the country — is facing “a very serious problem” with drug abuse. He said there is a definite need for a residential treatment facility, and the community needs to come to terms with that fact. “We need to get people out of the revolving door of incarceration,” he said, emphasizing Tuesday’s event was meant to spur a discussion of strategies and give a voice to those in need.
Gordy Coburn, chair of the S.B. City College Alcohol and Drug Counseling Department, said while some treatment options are available to area residents, they’re not enough. People, he explained, are consistently self-medicating with the “wrong drug” and lead lives of dependency that sometimes end in premature death. Coburn said 85 percent of those behind bars are there for drug offenses, even though 75 percent of jails and prisons are overcrowded. Additionally, he went on, it costs the state around $45,000 per year to house an inmate but only $10,000 a year to treat someone with co-occurring disorders.
Claiming proper treatment would cut down not only on the number of drug-related deaths countywide, but also probably reduce the number of homeless who wander the streets, Coburn said the treatment programs are out there, they just have to be implemented. “We know how to do this,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
Janice Shea, Hotel de Riviera program director, said we as a community need to “take responsibility for what’s happening around us,” and said those in need are not strangers or vagabonds, but “are our brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. They’re ours. These are members of our society that deserve our respect and our dollars,” she said.
Jean Lott of Lompoc, whose son suffers from co-occurring disorders, closed things out by stating, “We want treatment, not felonies.” Riordan also said the Sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau — which she claimed admitted weaknesses in its data collection processes — is working to update its systems to better reflect the frequency and details of alcohol and drug-related deaths.