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Opiate-Related Deaths In Santa Clarita Rise For Second Straight Year

A Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station official reported Thursday that the number of opiate-related deaths has risen for the second straight year.

“There are 15 confirmed (drug-related deaths)  by the Coroner’s Office, and I’ve got four that are awaiting confirmations,” said Bob Wachsmuth, a longtime resident and investigator with the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile Intervention Team.

In 2011, there were seven deaths, and in 2010, there were five, according to the SCV resident who’s been a member of the J-Team since 2010, and involved with the Sheriff’s Department since 1968.

All of the deaths are opiate-related, he added, with the exception of one that was caused by methamphetamine, he said.

That number represents a steady incline over the last three years, which, on the surface, could be seen as discouraging. But the numbers alone don’t tell the full story, he said.

”The numbers are more accurate (now),” said Wachsmuth, who personally follows up on each death.

The fact that the deaths are more thoroughly investigated than they have been in the past is one significant factor in the increase in the numbers. The investigator said he has evolved his investigative techniques over the past few years since joining the team.

But he also said it takes time to change the attitude toward drugs and addicts, which is one of the primary goals of the intervention team.

“The fact of the matter is that the seeds were planted for these kids today (who died) in 2012 from five years ago when they were introduced to marijuana,” he said.

“The whole J-Team was created with the idea of breaking the chain of teenagers starting on marijuana and progressing through the variety of drugs through the final end, which is heroin,” he said. “That was the whole premise for the J-Team.”

Wachsmuth has said the most important part of the local effort has been the partnership between law enforcement, the city and the schools, which are in many ways unique.

Local officials such as Wachsmuth have put a big effort into building relationships within that community. The idea is to build an attitude and awareness of the drug-counseling efforts that are out there, which in some scenarios means a break from traditional attitudes and instead focusing on letting addicts know there is help available -- in addition to refuting some oft-repeated misconceptions regarding drug use, he said.

“The TV stars, some newscasters, some people in positions of power and authorities don’t understand the addictive qualities of today’s marijuana, they’re naive,” he said. “A lot of these people might have grown up with marijuana back in the ’60s and early ’70s, it was 4-6 percent THC,” he said, referring to the psychoactive component. “And now it’s over 20-22 percent, easy.”

He acknowledged that while most marijuana users don’t progress to heroin, but the cycle is starting at a younger and younger age here in the SCV. Just this past month, two 11-year-olds and a 12-year-old were caught with marijuana, he said.

“There’s a gigantic percentage that don’t go to heroin, and I probably don’t have any evidence other than experience,” he said. “But 10 percent at least progress up the chain of drugs and end up at heroin or oxycontin.”