The news that families and communities who never thought heroin could touch them are battling the drug and other opioids comes as no surprise to R. Gil Kerlikowske, the nation's drug czar.
"It's every economic class. It's every racial and ethnic class," Kerlikowske said Tuesday when asked about Simi Valley and other Ventura County communities entrenched in a fight against a class of opium-derived drugs that range from heroin to prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin.
"I hear from people and parents in suburbia who say, 'The last thing I ever thought I would have to worry about is my son or daughter addicted to heroin,' " he said.
Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, spoke Tuesday in Los Angeles at the California Summit on Opioid Dependence. He said it's good that communities are taking action against abuse of painkillers and heroin. But among teens, naiveté reigns, he said.
"Young people don't recognize the addictive powers of heroin," Kerlikowske said. "They think if they snort it or smoke it, they won't get addicted."
Organized in part by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Tuesday's summit exposed the magnitude of a problem speakers called a crisis. About 80 percent of all opioids worldwide are consumed in the United States. More people are killed by drugs than car crashes in a trend accelerated by deaths caused by prescription painkillers.
About nine of 10 people treated at an opioid outpatient center in Ventura in the mid-1990s were battling a heroin addiction, said Mark Hickman, president of Western Pacific Med/Corp., which runs 10 treatment clinics. Although still large, that heroin number has fallen, while abuse of Vicodin, OxyContin and other painkillers has risen, he said.
One contributing factor is the abundance of prescription opioids prescribed by some doctors to the terminally ill and others in chronic pain, Hickman said. That practice opens a door to relatives and close friends.
"They now have access to these medications," said Hickman, who attended Tuesday's summit. "When they can't get any more in home settings, they have to obtain it in other areas. They get it on the street."
The Western Pacific clinic in Ventura has about 300 patients, all fighting opioid abuse, Hickman said.
"It's really everyone," he said. "We have professionals. We have homeless people. We have middle-class people. It does not discriminate."
Part of the summit discussion focused on treatment in jails and prisons. New users of heroin and similarly potent drugs may not have criminal records, but they probably will at some point, said Dr. Joshua Lee, a researcher and attending physician in New York City's jail system.
"It doesn't stay nice and clean and suburban," he said. "It gets messy."
Treatment experts talked about medications such as Vivitrol and Suboxone. Kerlikowske encouraged the wider use of a drug called Naloxone to reverse the effects of an overdose. It's used by emergency rooms, but some communities are also distributing the drug to relatives of addicts.
The goal is to educate families about signs of an overdose and give them tools to deal with it, Kerlikowske said.
"You can't get someone into treatment if they die," he said.
Garett Staley once had a $300-a-day heroin addiction. She served a year in prison because of theft she used to support her habit.
Staley stopped using through total abstinence and reliance on 12-step support.
"When I was sitting in the meeting, I didn't think about getting high," said Staley, another who attended Tuesday's summit. "For the first year, I was holding on by the seat of my pants. I wanted to get high every single day."
She has been clean for 15 years. She has master's degrees in social work and public administration. She works as director of an outpatient addiction program in El Monte.
Her recovery began when she realized that feeling isolated and stuck in place was a choice, just like change.
"Hope," she said, "is possible."
By Tom Kisken
Posted October 9, 2012
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