Gabriel grew up in a nice home. But his father, a single parent, was a heroin addict, and Gabriel got into a lot of trouble. A curious kid, he would wander into strangers’ houses on the Westside. By age 13, he was shooting up. Today, the 48-year-old, who has been clean since last December, has a plaque on his wall of the 40 or so people he knows who died from an overdose.
That painful reality has gotten worse in recent years in Santa Barbara County. In 2015, the number of drug- and alcohol-related deaths reached 75 — including 24 suicides — a 21 percent increase from 2014. This year, Santa Barbara is on track to match 2015’s figures, with 29 confirmed overdose deaths through June, plus a handful of cases still pending coroner’s reports.
Fueled by the mass marketing of OxyContin beginning in 1995, the U.S. has become obsessed with the idea of pain and a pain-free existence, said John Doyel, the county’s alcohol and drug expert. For decades, doctors were undertreating pain, but in the past 15 or so years, the pendulum has swung the other way, and opioids started to be overprescribed. That trend, coupled with the rising prices of these pills and the availability of cheap heroin out of Mexico, created the country’s heroin epidemic.
Dr. Paul Erickson, the psychiatry and chemical dependency medical director at Cottage Hospital, explained opioid use in general has also moved from impoverished cities to middle-class populations. In 2014, for instance, more than half the county’s overdose deaths occurred in more affluent southern Santa Barbara County.
Addicts, alarmingly, rush to dealers when they hear people are dying of heroin, Doyel said. “It sounds really morbid,” but an uptick in overdoses, he explained, means a really potent batch has come through town. On the streets of Santa Barbara, black tar heroin costs $900 an ounce, a little less than it was just months ago, according to police detectives.
Most of the recent overdose deaths were attributed to multi-drug use. About half of the 51 deaths in 2015 included sleeping pills or sedatives, and nearly a fifth involved fentanyl, a powerful pain medication given to terminally ill patients. “It’s what killed Prince,” Doyel said. “Imagine heroin on steroids. More and more people are going to be addicted. And more and more people are going to die.”
For Gabriel — tattooed, clean-shaven, and dressed in a plaid, button-up shirt — the prevalence of heroin in Santa Barbara has forced him to take an inventory of his life. Being around people he doped with is a trigger. So are the restrooms where he got high. “I don’t even ride my bike across town anymore,” he said. “My own family is still using. I had to say hi and bye.”
Now, Gabriel takes the bus from Lompoc to Santa Barbara’s Aegis Treatment Center for his weekly dose of methadone, a controlled substance in liquid form used to alleviate withdrawal symptoms or to treat pain.
Recently, the county’s Behavioral Wellness department purchased 300 intranasal Naloxone kits and has budgeted for another 500. The emergency overdose antidote, known by the brand name Narcan, shocks the body into feeling it’s experiencing an immediate withdrawal. “You wake up sick,” said Gabriel.
Behavioral Wellness has also trained 85 individuals and organizations how to use Narcan to reverse the effects of an apparent drug overdose rather than wait for paramedics to arrive. Between 2006 and 2014, the percentage of patients seeking treatment for opioid addiction tripled at county health care offices.
Gabriel takes life one day at a time, feeling encouraged about the progress he has made. “Some people stop drugs, and they go shopping to fulfill that emptiness.” He meditates, attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and checks in with his sponsor. “I know I can’t do it by myself,” he said. Asked if he thought legalizing drugs would help solve the problem, Gabriel responded with a resounding “No.” “Drugs are evil,” he said.