According to a painkiller abuse specialist, Oxycontin is one of the strongest and most addictive of the prescription, pill-form opiates. It was found in a number of Santa Barbara residents' systems when they died drug-related deaths.
Paul Wellman

Is deadly drug use on a seriously steep rise in Santa Barbara County? Recent documents released by the Coroner’s Bureau suggest so, although no official appears ready to admit or even openly analyze the potentially disturbing trend.

Every year, the coroner tracks county residents who die due to drug- and/or alcohol-related reasons. Earlier this year, The Independent was given a list of the nearly 200 Santa Barbara County residents who died such deaths from 2007 to 2009. The data includes the decedents’ names and ages, the prescription and illicit drugs found in their systems at the time of their deaths, and the coroner’s best guess of what caused them to die.

While the charts provide a peek into a potentially unsettling rise in such deaths, any kind of informed analysis proved unusually difficult to come by. Head coroner Sargent Sandra Brown, who initially gave the documents to The Independent during her first week on the job, now says she is too busy with pending cases to study the data and offer any insight. Multiple messages left over the past three months with the Public Health Department, the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and other agencies went unreturned.

The reason no one wanted to comment for this story remains unclear — and may be as simple as not having the time to properly respond in these days of strapped budgets and overworked employees — but The Independent is posting the 45 pages of documents here in their near-entirety for the sake of spreading public information and alerting others to the facts. The decedents’ middle and last names have been omitted, as it is the causes of death and not who died that is relevant.

A basic reading shows that many more people reportedly died drug- and/or alcohol-related deaths in 2009 (114) than 2007 (44) or 2008 (38). Why this is so remains a mystery. It’s also ambiguous what exactly qualifies a death as drug- or alcohol-related. For instance, most of the “Cause of Death” entries for 2007 and 2008 are “multiple drug ingestion / decedent ingested numerous prescription medications.” Perhaps the trend reflects a new method of categorizing these deaths, but again, no one could clarify as much for this article.

The descriptions for 2009 are decidedly more creative, but don’t explain why certain deaths have been ruled drug- or alcohol-related as opposed to accidents or suicides among individuals with low or nonexistent levels of drugs in their systems. Examples of these descriptions include, “While under the influence, decedent choked on pizza”; “Decedent set house on fire, then stabbed himself in the chest”; and “Decedent was crawling on train track and was struck by train.”

The charts reveal that most people, when they died, had one or more prescription drugs in their bodies. Many were anti-anxiety and pain relief medications. Whether the decedents were prescribed these meds by a doctor or they obtained them illegally is unknown, as are the possible deadly combinations of certain different narcotics.

During an interview for an unrelated story, police spokesperson Lt. Paul McCaffrey said that, in his opinion, prescription drug abuse in the county is a huge issue that hasn’t been properly addressed.

A report recently released by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that, for the years 2006-2008, the Santa Barbara and Ventura County area was the number one region in California to use painkillers for nonmedical purposes. Compared to an overall state average of 5.27 percent, approximately 7.05 percent of Santa Barbara and Ventura residents abused pain relievers. The report also revealed that 12.40 percent of Santa Barbara and Ventura residents used an illicit drug within one month of being surveyed, good for the highest rate in the state and more than 3 percentage points over California’s 9.34 percent average.

Clare Kavin, a painkiller abuse specialist who helps run a rapid detox clinic in Los Angeles, said that there is “definitely a national trend” of people getting introduced and then becoming addicted to prescription medications. “It’s a numbing device,” she said, noting oxycodone (the main ingredient in Oxycontin) is one of the most available, addictive, and dangerous of the pill-form opiate drugs that “take the physical and mental pressures away but allow you to still function.” And Santa Barbara is no exception, she went on, explaining that thousands of college students who live here regularly abuse painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs because they’re easy to come by and offer quick relief.

Users will oftentimes crush up and snort opiate pills to speed up the process, but that sometimes has a deadly consequence. “It’s such a powerful narcotic,” Kavin said. Snorting one Oxycontin in addition to having a few drinks is enough to kill someone, she stated. And popping the pills for a mere week or two is sufficient to get a person fully addicted, she summed up.

Heroin use throughout the country and Santa Barbara is also on the rise, claimed Kavin, who said her agency has been receiving more and more calls about people hooked on the drug. Oftentimes classified as morphine in the Santa Barbara coroner’s reports (and itself an opiate), heroin is a cheaper version of pill-form drugs, frequently turned to when addicts can’t get their fix from the purer prescriptions. Nordiazepam and Diazepam, which also appeared often in the charts, are prescription anti-anxiety medications that people hooked on opiates sometimes use as temporary substitutes.


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