Fellowship Story Showcase
Alcohol Plays a Role All Its Own in Setting the Stage for Local Abuse, Overdoses
This article was written by Noozhawk Staff Writer Giana Magnoli as part of Day 2 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.
» Alcohol Plays a Role All Its Own in Setting the Stage for Local Abuse, Overdoses
Day Three:Rich Detty Bears Burden of Not Knowing Extent of Dead Son's Drug Use
Day Twelve:Professionals Working in Addiction Field Often Share Roots at Antioch University Santa Barbara
Alcoholism forced 20-year-old Amy to move away from Santa Barbara and everything she knew. She had begun drinking at age 16 and a pattern of dependence started soon after, forcing her into a succession of rehabilitation facilities before she moved to Oklahoma in an attempt to break the cycle.
Recognizing the difference between using or abusing alcohol and being addicted is important, said Amy’s mother, Susan, who asked that Noozhawk not use the family’s real names in reporting on their circumstances.
Treatment specialists note that not all substance abuse — like binge drinking by college students — necessarily leads to lifelong habits. But some people are genetically predisposed to substance abuse or dependence, including alcoholism.
The latter was the case for Amy, whose body doesn’t react to alcohol the way others do. Her mother said she never got hangovers and was once admitted to the emergency room, fully conscious, with a blood-alcohol concentration over 0.3 percent, a range with risks of coma or death.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. No matter how quickly or how much is consumed, it is metabolized and will leave the body at a specific pace. With high alcohol levels, the respiratory centers in the brain are inhibited, which, as with other depressants, can result in death by asphyxiation.
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, compiled by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the Health and Human Services Department, found that 51.9 percent of Americans age 12 or older reported using alcohol at least once in the previous 30 days.
Binge drinking — defined as five or more drinks within two hours — is prevalent, too, especially among college students, and can result in alcohol-related crimes like public intoxication and driving under the influence.
In 2010, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted 139 cases of driving under the influence of drugs and 38 cases of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
There have been many high-profile DUI cases locally. In 2008, District Attorney’s Office investigator Laura Cleaves was killed when her car was hit head-on by a drunken driver on Highway 154 in Santa Ynez. In 2009, a wrong-way driver with a blood-alcohol level of .22 percent collided with a car on Highway 101 in Goleta, killing the driver of the other car, 18-year-old Marcos Arredondo, and a passenger, 59-year-old family friend Macrina Ocampo, and permanently injuring Arredondo’s two younger sisters.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign includes DUI checkpoints. During an 18-day crackdown over the summer, authorities made 200 DUI arrests in Santa Barbara County.
Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara Police Department’s calls for service records show 146 DUI calls from January to June of this year, although not all of them resulted in arrests.
In the same six-month period in Santa Barbara, there were 687 calls regarding public intoxication, or drunk in public. Many of those are the result of SBPD’s Nightlife Enforcement Team, or NET, which patrols the downtown area and focuses on establishments with Alcoholic Beverage Control licenses. NET officers can also protest liquor license applications.
Santa Barbara has 469 active retail licenses within the city limits — a number that includes restaurants, bars, grocery markets and liquor stores — and 42 active nonretail licenses for manufacturers or wholesalers such as wine tasting rooms. Goleta and Carpinteria have significantly fewer, with 135 and 50 total alcohol licenses, respectively, according to Alcoholic Beverage Control officials.
Authorities also respond to alcohol- and drug-related medical emergencies, including overdoses.
“We see between five and 10 of what appear to be alcohol overdoses every weekend,” he told Noozhawk, referring to the small, densely packed community west of UCSB.
“Typically what we do is call an ambulance,” he explained. “That’s a lifesaving call. 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.”
The Foot Patrol works closely with UCSB and its campus police, since Isla Vista is heavily populated with students.
There’s also a concern about combining alcohol with other drugs that can amplify the drugs’ effects, said Jackie Kurta, director of UCSB’s Alcohol and Drug Program.
Surveys indicate that half of UCSB’s nearly 23,000 students report binge drinking within the past 30 days, and Kurta’s program is behind the “Just Call 9-1-1” campaign that encourages students to be more aware of abuse and overdose risks.
“Even when someone is unconscious or stopped drinking, alcohol continues to be released into the bloodstream and the blood-alcohol level in the body continues to rise,” she said.
Warning signs for alcohol poisoning include being nonresponsive, vomiting while passed out, slow or irregular breathing, pale skin or extreme confusion.
Kurta’s department also provides tips to “party safe,” which include never combining alcohol with drugs.
“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.
“If you’re going to drink, drink in moderation and know what you’re doing,” she added. “If you’re going to play around with prescription drugs, know it’s a bad thing to do. If you’re going to combine them, it’s bad news.”