Skip to main content.

Santa Barbara County Officials Look for Solutions in Battle Against Prescription Drug Abuse

Fellowship Story Showcase

Santa Barbara County Officials Look for Solutions in Battle Against Prescription Drug Abuse

Picture of Bill Macfadyen

This article was written by Noozhawk Staff Writer Lara Cooper as part of Day 12 in Noozhawk's 12-day, six-week special investigative series. Related links are below.

The Noozhawk's Prescription for Abuse series is a special project exploring the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in Santa Barbara County. Our series is a result of an exciting and unique partnership with USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which awarded Noozhawk a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship to undertake this important work.

Through our reporting and presentation, we will establish an independent baseline of where our community is with respect to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications; how the problem is affecting health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, addiction and treatment, and our culture and society; what we as a community can do to educate ourselves about prevention and controls; and how we can perhaps reverse what appears to be a very troubling trend.

Noozhawk staff writers Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli are the lead reporters on the project, and they've been assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St.Oegger; content producer Cliff Redding; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.

Ashley Almada, Garrett Geyer, Hailey Sestak and Billy Spencer of the Santa Barbara Teen News Network filmed more than two dozen public-service videos featuring many of our story sources.

The project is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation in partnership with KEYT, sbTNN and Zona Seca. The Annenberg School is assisted by the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State University.


Day One:

» Quiet Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse Taking a Toll on Santa Barbara County

» After Losing It All, Former Drug Addict Looking Forward to Renewed Life

» USC, California Endowment Unite to Support Health Journalism at the Source

» Bill Macfadyen: Prescription for Abuse Project Is a Series of Opportunities

Day Two:

» Local, National Statistics Reveal Alarming Jumps in Misuse and Abuse of Medications

» Marijuana Use Trends Higher, Especially Among Young Adults, Sparking Public Health Concerns

» Alcohol Plays a Role All Its Own in Setting the Stage for Local Abuse, Overdoses

Day Three:

» Understanding Addiction Key to Dealing With Prescription Drug Abuse

» Donna Genera Has Seen the Price and Perils of Drug Addiction from All Sides

» Rich Detty Bears Burden of Not Knowing Extent of Dead Son's Drug Use

Day Four:

» Escalation of Drug Overdose Deaths Includes Increased Presence of Prescription Medications

» Santa Barbara Teen News Network Adds Another Dimension to Prescription Drug Abuse Series

» Dr. Chris Lambert Sounds Warning on Mixing Prescription Drugs with Alcohol

Day Five:

» Local Oversight of Prescription Medications Is Far More Focused Than State, Federal Controls

» Elderly Are Particularly Vulnerable to Both Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Drugs

» Second-Generation Pharmacist Peter Caldwell Fills a Vital Role with Patient Health Care

Day Six:

» Early Education for Parents and Youth Emerges as Critical Tactic to Thwart Drug Use

» Student Highs Can Lead to Tragic Woes with Addiction's Hook Just One Fateful Step Away

» From an Early Age, Shereen Khatapoush Saw the Horrors of Substance Abuse

» As a Parent Herself, Prosecutor Von Nguyen Brings Empathy to Job in Juvenile Justice

Day Seven:

» Law Enforcement Fights Battle Against Prescription Drug Abuse from Outside and Inside

» Sheriff Bill Brown a Strong Supporter of Re-Entry, Drug Abuse Treatment Efforts

» Speaking from Experience, Zona Seca's Kevin Smith Keeps Drug Abusers on Road to Recovery

Day Eight:

» Prescription Drug System Is Rife with Loopholes, Fraud and Lack of Oversight

» For Clinical Psychologist Neil Rocklin, Addiction Education Can't Begin Soon Enough

Day Nine:

» Drug Abuse Treatment Programs, Expertise Are Plentiful on South Coast

» Dr. David Agnew Sees Pain as Pathway to Abuse But Cautions Against Overreaction

Day Ten:

» Awareness, Disposal Key Elements to Reversing Tide of Prescription Drug Abuse

» Dr. Joe Blum Keeps Focus on His Veteran Patients Despite Health-Care System's Restraints

Day Eleven:

» Operation Medicine Cabinet Gets the Drop on Prescription Drug Disposal

» Lacey Johnson Gives UCSB Students an Education in Dealing with Drug Abuse and Addiction

Day Twelve:

» Santa Barbara County Officials Look for Solutions in Battle Against Prescription Drug Abuse

» Noozhawk Journalists Recount Lessons Learned from Prescription Drug Abuse Series

» Annenberg Fellowships Take a Diverse Approach to Community Health Journalism

» Dr. Nancy Leffert Champions Antioch University's Role in Fight Against Substance Abuse

» Professionals Working in Addiction Field Often Share Roots at Antioch University Santa Barbara

Convincing pharmaceutical companies to accept return of unused drugs is among initiatives agencies are pursuing
Monday, October 17, 2011

Leslie Robinson, like other officials at the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department, has her eyes on San Francisco.

That’s because San Francisco recently struck a deal with pharmaceutical companies to create more places to drop off expired or unwanted prescription medications. Robinson and others would like to see a shift toward collections at pharmacies, which the program specialist says would be more convenient for the public.

Because of San Francisco’s pilot program, residents can now dispose of their medicines — for free — at 16 pharmacies and five police stations in the city. All medications are accepted at the police stations, and the pharmacies will accept everything but controlled substances.

Locally, the Sheriff’s Department and the county Public Works Department’s Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division have been providing people a place to dump their unused drugs through the successful Operation Medicine Cabinet program.

Officials say expanding the take-back effort could be key to preventing more abuse. Seven out of 10 people who abuse prescription painkillers reported getting them from friends or relatives, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use & Health.

San Francisco got the attention of the pharmaceutical industry, and smaller municipalities are taking note.

“We’re going to watch that and see how it goes,” Robinson said.

Many pharmacies currently accept the return of noncontrolled medications, but consumers must pay three or four dollars for an envelope to mail them in.

“It’s not anything that’s widely practiced in this area,” Robinson said.

That became clear last week as sheriff’s Deputy Desiree Thorne emptied out one of the drop boxes outside Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4436 Calle Real. Over a two-day period, nearly 40 pounds of medication had been dropped off at the location.

Formerly, only law enforcement could handle medication disposal, but a new law is about to make that a thing of the past.

Last year, President Barack Obama signed the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010, legislation authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that allows easier disposal of unwanted drugs.

The new law allows consumers to get rid of their own drugs, as long as the disposal conforms to federal guidelines, and permits long-term care facilities to dispose of the drugs of their residents. The Drug Enforcement Administration has begun drafting regulations to implement the law.

Another bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. The proposed Pharmaceutical Stewardship Act of 2011 would require pharmaceutical producers to fund comprehensive take-back programs in each state.

Leslie Wells, program manager of the county Waste Management Division, says that more and more people are asking the manufacturers to take some responsibility.

“People are going to the pharmacy to get these meds,” she said. “It’s natural for them to bring them back. We’re really trying to support any legislation that is looking into that as an option.”

Another solution to the region’s prescription abuse problem could be a shared system in which doctors could check records of patients. Doctor shopping has repeatedly come up as an issue during Noozhawk’s research for the Prescription for Abuse series, and although a state database monitors prescriptions, it’s had limited success as a gate-keeping measure.

Cottage Health System and Sansum Clinic each have their own systems to track what is prescribed and when, but they don’t share information because of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) implications.

The goal over the next year is to improve communications between health-care organizations. Efforts for a shared database were under way about a decade ago, but Dr. Chris Lambert, director of Cottage’s Frequent Opiate User program, said worries about exchanging proprietary and confidential information hindered the move.

“We don’t necessarily talk to each other as well as we could,” Lambert said. “A stumbling block all along has been the lack of a common database.”

Perhaps the best solution to prescription drug project isn’t just about more barriers. Educating the public — especially young people — about the dangers of prescription drug abuse is key, according to Shereen KhatapoushYouth Services System director of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.

“There needs to be education and supply reduction,” she said. “Doctors need to be more conscious of the prescriptions being written, and people need to understand if they don’t take their full course of medication there are easy ways to dispose of what they don’t use.”

With this theme of education, Noozhawk plans to launch several community forums this winter to talk about solutions that could work in Santa Barbara.

Whether those solutions come from changes at the state or federal levels, the impacts will remain local. Families will continue to be ripped apart by drug abuse until education and tighter controls take place.

“Addiction had robbed us of everything,” Lisa W., a source for Noozhawk’s first Prescription for Abuse series story, said of her family. “That one Vicodin can — and will — put you in prison, emotionally and physically.”

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or@NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.