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

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

Picture of Bill Macfadyen

This article was written by Noozhawk Staff Writer Giana Magnoli as part of Day 6 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

UCSB officials, local law enforcement walk fine line between enforcement and student safety
Wednesday, October 5, 2011

While prescription drug abuse and addiction can start with a legitimate prescription or self-medication, many South Coast college students end up in emergency rooms or treatment programs as the result of chasing a high.

“If there’s a combination someone can come up with to get high, they’ll do it,” UCSB police Detective David Millard said.

Recreational use of prescription or illicit drugs and alcohol — sometimes at the same time — is a frequent pastime for many people in the local college student population.

Each year, about 1,200 UCSB students go through the school’s Alcohol & Drug Program as a result of residence hall violations, citations or legal infractions, said program director Jackie Kurta.

“The last three years, we’ve seen more students struggling with issues involving prescription drug abuse, and particularly opiates, and those are students who do come forward for help,” Kurta said. “They’re usually at a point where they’re struggling, tried to quit on their own and find their own methods to kick it, but found it too hard to stay in school and do that at the same time.”

Most of those students started using recreationally without being aware of the dangers of mixing drugs, she said.

“What they’re not aware of is how addictive these substances are — opiates and benzodiazepines — and tolerance starts to build so they get into higher and higher use,” Kurta said.

Use of opiates is the biggest problem, and Kurta says many students draw the line at snorting or smoking and won’t inject them. Once needles are involved, a slew of other risks arise, like an increased chance of infection and overdose.

Opiates are products derived from opium poppy products, including the natural morphine and codeine and semi-synthetic hydromorphone, oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Brand name products with these components include Robitussin (codeine) and powerful painkillers like Dilaudid (hydromorphone), OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone).

Young adults often use prescription drugs to get high in ways that have high risks of overdose: mixing them with large amounts of alcohol, mixing drugs together and taking them non-orally, treatment professionals say.

With many drugs, there’s a time-release formula meant to space out the effects, but if they’re crushed and snorted, a person will “get a rush unlike what is intended,” Kurta explained.

“The faster it gets to the brain, the faster it leaves, so a person needs to do more, more often, and in bigger doses” to feel the same effect, she said.

In Kurta’s experience, “the opiates in and of themselves tend not to kill people,” she said. “It’s the alcohol compounded on the effects of the opiate in terms of slowing down the central nervous system.”

UCSB’s Drug & Alcohol Program is behind campus educational campaigns urging students to party safe. If students drink, they are advised to do so in moderation, and if they “play around” with prescription drugs it’s a very bad idea — but combining the two is worse, Kurta said.

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike McCoy of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol often comes across young people who have taken things several steps too far.

“There seems to be an attitude of invincibility,” he said.

Millard said he has confronted people who “looked horrible” and they told him they chugged a whole bottle of Robitussin and chased it with a beer.

Combining alcohol with Vicodin or Xanax — a strong anti-anxiety benzodiazepine — is also common right now.

UCSB Police Chief Dustin Olson said drug abuse among the student population is common, but for widely varying motives.

“We tend to see a lot of the college students, because of the challenges and trials and tribulations of academic rigor,” he said. “The Adderall, the Xanax, the Ritalin for the test anxiety, honing their study skills, staying up all night.

“It’s very challenging, because like most four-year schools, we’re like a small city. We have our own physicians, our own psychiatrists, and all of these folks who prescribe medications. We have our own pharmacy.”

Millard said he has only seen “a handful” of forged prescriptions in his 10 years at UCSB. He added that accessibility for students is mostly through parents, overprescribing physicians, doctor shopping and medical marijuana dispensaries.

Some students have been known to sell their extra drugs, too.

“Some of that medication makes its way out onto the streets of Isla Vista, and that’s something they’re subsidizing their college educations or their meager incomes with,” Olson said.

UCSB police work closely with the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, which is kept busy in the densely populated neighborhoods west of campus.

The college-aged community accounts for five to 10 alcohol overdoses every weekend, McCoy said. A “significant” number of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol’s calls for service are related to drugs or alcohol, he added.

“We see a lot of kids who are out trying to enhance their high,” McCoy said.

Any opiate-based narcotic depresses the central nervous system and “extends the length of the high,” he explained.

McCoy held up county Coroner’s Office reports and pointed to a few highlighted items, all of them related to young people.

“What we see from that oftentimes is deaths,” he said. “It’s pretty staggering when you look at that.”

There’s no denying that Isla Vista is and probably always will be a hub for college parties, but the message from Kurta’s program is simple: party safe.

The Drug & Alcohol Program releases guides with tips for party throwers and partygoers to keep people from drinking themselves into dangerous situations.

A new public relations campaign is called “Just Call 9-1-1,” and Kurta said UCSB wants to dispense with myths of expense or getting in trouble for calling an ambulance to help a friend.

“We’re trying to break through that,” Olson agreed.

UCSB has been notifying parents as well to help students understand the risk and not be afraid of repercussions if they call.

Medical calls are the priority of first responders, even law enforcement. If someone is showing warning signs of alcohol or drug overdose, people are asked to call 9-1-1 immediately.

“Typically what we do is call an ambulance; that’s a life-saving call,” McCoy said. “We’re not going to try to file charges. We don’t need to have somebody die to try and get an arrest in.

“We’re about saving lives as much as anybody else is.”

Kurta has heard students worry about the cost of an ambulance, as well. The campaign makes it very clear that it’s free for an ambulance to come out and evaluate someone who may have overdosed, while Undergraduate Student Health Insurance covers the cost of one ambulance ride per year.

If students come in for help, counseling is completely free, she added.

The 1,200 students who are mandated to participate in one of the five-week programs will first be referred to UCSB’s College Alcohol and Substance Education program, or CASE, which stresses the perspective that “It’s against the law, but if you do it anyway, be safe,” Kurta said.

If referred again, students must enter the process-oriented Skills Awareness and Motivation program, or SAM, and maybe Insight, a smaller group approach with individual sessions that help identify what changes need to be made.

The 6-year-old CASE program has developed a reputation, and many students remember their time fondly because they got to talk about things they couldn’t discuss anywhere else, Kurta said.

Her staff tells the students: “We didn’t refer you here but we’re glad you are here.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.