By Karen Brainard
Parents and students who packed Ramona High School’s performing arts wing for the Drug Abuse Prevention Night on May 9 heard a powerful presentation that told them heroin use and deaths from prescription drug abuse are on the rise.
“Heroin by far is becoming the drug of choice,” Sgt. David Ross of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department told the approximately 280 people who filled the room to capacity.
“I could tell you we could walk out this door and I could drive you a quarter mile from here and we could purchase heroin, methamphetamines or cocaine, anything you want,” said Ross, adding that would be one of about 20 locations in Ramona.
“It’s rampant in Ramona. But don’t be scared about that ‘cause it’s rampant across Southern California,” he said.
Ross, a deputy sheriff for 22 years, said he worked undercover in narcotics in the San Diego region until August 2010 and now supervises a team that works undercover.
He started the presentation with warnings about teenage abuse of prescription drugs. Society has a misconception that pills can cure every problem, he said, and teens believe prescription pills are safer than street drugs.
Prescription drug-related deaths continue to climb, he said, adding that he is waiting for the final statistics but believes nearly 900 people died in the region from prescription drugs in 2011. U.S. officials are calling overdose deaths from powerful painkillers a nationwide epidemic, he said.
Ross explained pharming parties where teens and even pre-teens are asked to bring some kind of medication, even by raiding their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets. The pills are thrown into a punch bowl, he said, and mixed.
The teens will play a game with dice or numbers to determine how many pills to take — doesn’t matter what they are, he said. “They’ll take them to see what happens. Very, very common.”
Prescription drugs have become the second most abused drug behind marijuana, said Ross, and a survey revealed that 13.4 million 12- to 17-year-olds said they could get prescription drugs in a day or less.
Rattling off a list of abused prescription drugs, Ross said most teenagers in the room were probably aware of them. He mentioned Adderall and Ritalin, used to treat attention deficit disorder, but abused by young people to stay awake and alert for exams in high school and college. Other abused prescription drugs in San Diego include Xanax, Vicodin, Morphine, Ambien, and Oxycontin.
“By far it’s been the worst of the worse when we talk about prescription drugs,” Ross said of Oxycontin.
Until 2010, Oxycontin ran rampant from Florida to Southern California, he said, and the preferred 80-milligram pill sold on the street for $80. Abusers could smoke it like heroin or crush it and snort it like cocaine. After 2010, Ross said, the manufacturer of Oxycontin was persuaded to make it tamper resistant so it can no longer be smoked and, if crushed, doesn’t have the same effects. Thus, young people are switching to heroin, he said.
“It has the same effects. It’s much cheaper,” Ross noted. In Ramona, a gram of heroin can be bought for about $60 and, if the purchaser buys a few grams at a time, the price drops down to about $50 a gram, he said. One gram is enough for about five uses, he added.
“Heroin has always had the stigma of being the rock-bottom drug. We have 12-year-old kids that are using heroin,” said Ross, adding that it is common to see 17- to 25- years-olds who have been strung out on heroin for three to four years.
Ross cautioned parents not to be their children’s friend, and recommended educating them about drugs and checking their computers and cellphones.
He gave warning signs of drug use, which included: withdrawing from family, loss of interest in things that were once important, drop in academic work performance, always tired, frequently finding ways to get away, money issues, items missing from the house, stories that don’t make sense, and physical symptoms such as weight loss.
Ross said users can become manipulative and will come up with excuses to get money. He also told parents to look for drug paraphernalia: pieces of aluminum foil that may have black streaks, hollowed-out pens, spoons, and syringes.
If parents suspect their child is using drugs, drug test them, Ross advised. Users of opiates such as Oxycontin or heroin become addicted almost immediately, he said.
Ross played videos of teen addicts describing how they got hooked and their battle to get clean. He showed how teens can be influenced to try drugs from music videos and online videos of teens who are high.
“As a result we’re seeing a new generation of addicts,” said Ross.
It’s scary, he added, because “most of these kids look like your average kid.” Ross said he often hears that the popular kids are using drugs.
Ross showed graphic photos of how young adults looked after dying from overdosing.
“I think it’s important for kids to realize what their parents see,” he said.
At the presentation were speakers giving their stories, including Cindy Aquirre, whose daughter, Veronica Aguirre, died in an alcohol-related vehicle crash when she was a senior at Poway High School.
Mike and Sherrie Rubin spoke with their son, Aaron, sitting beside them in a wheelchair. Aaron overdosed in 2005 from Oxycontin and several other prescription pills along with alcohol and is now a quadriplegic, said his mother. He answered questions by showing one finger for “yes” and two fingers for “no.”
Ross warned parents that Opana, a narcotic pain medicine twice as powerful as Oxycontin, is going to become a problem. Other trends to get high, Ross said, are inhalants, such as Dust-Off; spice, a synthetic marijuana; and what is known as “bath salts” but is really a combination of methamphetamine and PCP (phencyclidine). Marijuana, he said, is a gateway drug.
The presentation ended with the statistic that one in four will make the wrong choice. Drug tests were available for parents to take home.