2011-01-20 / Community

Heroin use on rise in Ventura County

More youths making jump from pain pills to needles
By Sylvie Belmond

After a brush with death nearly three years ago, Reginald Potts became committed to a balanced and positive lifestyle. But recovering from heroin addiction is a never-ending battle.

Potts, 25, grew up in West Los Angeles and moved to Simi Valley during his junior year in high school. He started experimenting with marijuana and alcohol in middle school, and by the end of high school he was using a variety of stronger narcotics.

Potts began trying heroin in his early 20s and soon became addicted to the drug’s soothing high.

“That was probably the best time in my life. I had the perfect job. I would inject in the morning and go to school and work. I was getting good grades. I had my own place and was paying my bills,” he said.

Potts smoked the drug for several months before he began injecting it to get a more intense, cheaper high.

It was a “big stepping stone” that led to his downfall.

The thrill of the high led to addiction, forcing Potts to use the drug daily just so he could function.

On Feb. 18, 2008, Potts’ landlord found him unconscious in his room with a syringe in his arm, blood running out of his nose and foam coming of out his mouth.

Potts had suffered cardiac arrest and a stroke on the right side of his brain.

He spent nine days in intensive care and a month at the hospital, but he was no longer addicted to the drug.

He’s mostly recovered from the stroke, but said his vision is permanently impaired and he still has trouble moving his left hand. His perception and other cognitive skills were also affected, but not his determination. He now lives in Northern California and attends college.

“My days of irresponsibility and drug usage had caught up to me. . . . I’m constantly troubled with processing skills, frustration and headaches,” said Potts, who believes certain events happen in order to lead a person in a new direction.

Alarming trend

Potts’ story is not uncommon, said Capt. Brent Kerr of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

Across America and here in Ventura County, police and emergency room workers have seen an increase in heroin arrests and overdoses during the past four years.

“More people are arrested for possessing and using the drug,” Kerr said.

Men and women between 18 and 25 who use prescription opiates or methamphetamines are most vulnerable to heroin, he said.

Kerr is forming a coalition to teach residents about the signs of addiction and behavior changes associated with heroin.

“Heroin use can easily go undetected,” he said.

The coalition includes clergy, school and hospital representatives; city leaders; and institutions such as the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department, California Lutheran University and the Thousand Oaks Teen Center.

Kerr said the coalition will come alive in late February and will host town hall meetings at three different locations in the Conejo Valley.

The panel will include people affected by drug addiction who can provide insight on what they’ve experienced. The audience will be able to ask questions.

“We want to educate and inform the public on our concerns with this drug so they have a better understanding of what to be aware of, what to look for, and (we want to) provide avenues for help,” Kerr said.

Potts said that an addict’s behavior is hard to change.

“I don’t think you can do anything to help people make the right choice. People have to figure it out for themselves. They have to want to change,” he said.

Easy drug to obtain

Randi Klein, a psychotherapist and education counselor in Westlake Village, agrees with Potts. But she says relatives and friends can influence a desire for change if they make life uncomfortable for the addict.

Parents can require drug testing and provide treatment options. Families of addicts should seek professional help and join a 12- step group such as Al-Anon to learn how not to be an enabler, Klein said.

“Don’t keep secrets, don’t live in the shame. Asking for help is a sign of strength,” the psychotherapist said.

According to Klein, early intervention is essential because the period of time between a child’s first experiment with drugs and the point at which they become addicted can be short.

Heroin is easy to obtain, and addiction can be concealed from others—at least at first.

“Whether it is in the opiate form of Oxycontin and Vicodin or black tar, it is readily available on the streets and especially via (the) Internet,” Klein said.

Painkillers containing hydrocodone, such as Norco, Oxycontin and Vicodin, are especially habit-forming. All prescription drugs should be kept in a safe place.

Capt. Ron Nelson of the Moorpark Police Department said heroin has resurfaced as a drug of choice because it’s become cheaper than pain pills. Black market prescription drugs have dried up in recent years and their price has risen.

“We haven’t seen heroin for a long time and all of a sudden it’s kind of making a comeback. It’s cheap and available,” Nelson said.

Thousand Oaks City Councilmember Jacqui Irwin, who supports Kerr’s coalition, said she wants to publicize the dangers of heroin to prevent an epidemic in local schools. She hopes to inform residents about the local resources available to addicts and their families.

“Youth issues are a big interest to me,” said the mother of three.

Irwin said law encorcement and medical officials need to keep an eye on the current trends.

“Unlike drinking, heroin problems can sneak up on you if the hospital is not recording that these overdoses are happening,” Irwin said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the amount of pure heroin produced in Mexico has nearly tripled in the last five years, causing heroin availability in the U.S. to skyrocket.

The potency of today’s heroin puts intravenous users at a very high risk. The gamble just isn’t worth it, said Potts, who remains drug-free.

“I made a vow to never be a slave to pleasure or bad habits,” the former addict said. Addicted? Where to call for help • Ventura County Department of Alcohol/Drug Programs: (805) 652-6919 • Palmer Drug Abuse Program: (805) 482-1265 • Ventura County Behavioral Health: (805) 289-3100 • Phoenix House: 1-800-DRUG-HELP (378-4435) • Narcotics Anonymous World Services: (818) 773-9999 • National Drug Information Treatment and Referral Hotline: (800) 662-HELP (4357) • Narconon National Hotline: (800) 468-6933

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