Last year five young people died of heroin overdoses in the Santa Clarita Valley, according to stats from the SCV Sheriff's Station. But heroin isn't the community's only challenge when it comes to illegal or illicit drugs. KHTS News reporter Stephen K. Peeples is on special assignment going behind the scenes, talking to SCV kids, parents and the front-line professionals, to investigate what’s really going on, why it’s happening, and what we as a community are doing about it. This is the first story in a series. Click here  for links to all the stories.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” the old African proverb goes. It’s the idea that responsibility for raising a healthy, happy child starts with the family, then radiates outward to the neighborhood, the village and beyond, because as a people and a society, we all have a stake in every child’s success or failure.
In our village, the Santa Clarita Valley, there’s been a lot of attention focused in recent months on the problem of heroin use, addiction and overdosing by young people. While just a couple of years ago there was denial, the issue is now being confronted in a concerted way here, from law enforcement to the city of Santa Clarita, from schools and churches to community groups and individuals who work every day, every night with young people at risk.
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But smack is not the only drug damaging or killing our kids and young adults, as has been illuminated by a series of interviews with community leaders and experts whose respective missions, in no small part, include helping young people learn how to be safe as they grow up, and helping kids who get into trouble along the way.
“Heroin is definitely something we need to pay attention to, but so is everything (else),” said Cary Quashen (right), who heads the local Action Family Counseling drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers for teens and young adults and hosts the “Families in Action” program on KHTS-AM 1220 Mondays at noon. He’s been working in the field since 1978 and is a nationally recognized expert.
“Nobody wakes up and decides they want to use heroin; it always starts somewhere,” Quashen said. “So we need to pay attention to the first thing they do — the cigarettes, then the marijuana, then the alcohol, the crystal meth and everything else. Drugs are drugs; drugs kill people. All drugs are bad.”
Quashen thinks our SCV village has done a “great job educating people about heroin, but what about marijuana? Crystal meth? Prescription pills? More kids are using prescription pills now, for the first time, even above marijuana. So, we really need to pay attention. As a community, as families, as caregivers, we all need to educate ourselves. We need to find out what is out there, what is in our kid's face every day.”
Easy access exacerbates the local drug abuse problem. “We are living in a high-tech time right now – go on the Internet, you can find about anything,” Quashen said, referring to so-called “designer drugs.” “You have the bath salts, the Spice, the K2s — kids order it right on the Internet, it's insane. Or, any of these head shops — walk down Melrose Avenue, go to Venice Beach. This stuff is available for anybody, and just that easy to get.”
“Heroin is not the biggest problem we see among our student population, although it is increasingly creeping into our valley,” said Kim Goldman (pictured at left), executive director of the SCV Youth Project, a local nonprofit youth advocacy and crisis intervention organization. She’s been working in the nonprofit sector for more than a decade.
“Lots of kids are experimenting with cocaine, which was obviously big back in the day, but it’s finding its way back into Santa Clarita,” Goldman said. “Crack is still an issue out here, (and) prescription medication, kids pilfering their parents’ stashes. There are kids doing meth. Alcohol abuse is obviously rampant. Marijuana — we’re always grateful when we see a kid who’s just smoking pot.”
Goldman said the topic of designer or do-it-yourself drugs has come up among teens she and her staff work with. “Not necessarily that they themselves are doing it, but that their friends are. They’re experimenting with different huffing devices and the bath salts. There were kids last semester that reported dipping their cigarettes in Emergen-C, that vitamin pack mix. It’s like a powder, and they were smoking it and hallucinating off of that.
“A new trend that has popped up that our agency is trying to research is wax, a (concentrated) form of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana),” Goldman said. “(Wax) is not easily detectible and that’s one of the things kids are always looking to find — things that people are not looking for, that don’t fit the criteria of what an illicit or an illegal drug would look like. There’s lots of things you can home-grow, and if you search the Internet you can find out ways to cook things in your oven, and concoct different cocktails of things to get high off of.”
Drugs in SCV Schools
Illegal drugs in schools remains a major issue in the SCV, just as it is nearly everywhere else. “Kids are buying and selling drugs on campus, there are kids using drugs on campus,” Goldman said. “And law enforcement, they’re spread thin. It’s probably difficult for them to have a watchful eye over every student, but it’s definitely an issue for them. I sit in committee meetings with law enforcement that are working really hard to combat this problem.”
“Heroin is getting a lot of attention, but it tends to be an end result once our youth hit about age 19, 20, 21,” said Kathy Hunter (pictured at left), who as student services coordinator for the Wm. S. Hart Union High School District oversees safety, discipline, drug intervention and related programs at the local high schools and junior high schools.
“What we're most concerned about in the school district is marijuana use, alcohol, prescription drugs particularly, methamphetamine and cocaine,” she said. “There's a variety of everything out there.”
Hunter is aware teens in the district are also experimenting with designer drugs that may be legal or quasi-legal, or not to be sold to minors, but being used by minors, like Spice, wax, bath salts. Abuse of nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas and legally administered to patients by dentists or oral surgeons, is another problem she sees on the rise.
“We're looking at nitrous oxide being used at parties right now, and the parties have gotten more out of control because of the access to all of the different tools, such as Facebook and just emailing, so that they are able to invite large quantities of kids to come to things,” she said.
As to drug-related activity on school campuses, “I don't know that we can ever get to the point where we can say that we can keep it totally, completely from happening on any campus,” Hunter said.
“We're looking at campuses that have 2,500 or 3,200 kids, spread out wide, with a limited number of adults,” she said. “We have added a lot of things, such as surveillance cameras, which really help a great deal with tracking different incidents and covering different areas where students will go that usually don't have very many adults actually supervising.”
Some schools have also worked independently to boost vigilance. “A number of campuses have added individual programs, or they're utilizing parent volunteers and community volunteers who want to come in and just turn an extra pair of eyes on campus during, like, brunch and lunch, before school and after school, to just kind of help keep the sense of peace on the campus,” Hunter said.
But even cameras and extra eyeballs still can’t be everywhere all the time. “If kids want to do things, there's always, unfortunately, a way, because for example, you can't have surveillance cameras in bathrooms,” she said. “A lot of the substances that kids do bring (to school) these days are very easily hidden, and not detectable. And so, there is always going to be a risk of that. But keeping every one of our campuses safe for all kids is our utmost concern, so we will continue to work on it and implement more things and continue to reduce any type of substance abuse on campus.”
Public Enemy No. 1: Prescription Drug Abuse
Classmates, head shops, the Web are ready sources for drugs used by teens. But when it comes to kids scoring and abusing pills, it can’t get much easier than raiding the medicine cabinet at home.
“The largest issue we're focusing on right now, and what scares me the most, is the explosion of prescription drugs,” Quashen said. “It is off the hook and insane. We're treating more accidental addicts today than in the last 30 years. And in the last year, we've detoxed more adolescents from these prescription drugs than in the last 30 years.
Capt. Paul Becker (pictured at left) and his narcotics and Juvenile Intervention teams at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station are seeing the same sort of spike in prescription drug abuse, especially painkillers.
While five young people ranging in age from 19 to 29 died of heroin overdoses in the SCV in 2011, so far this year there’s been only one heroin overdose, a 23-year-old man who survived, according to Bob Wachsmuth, an investigator assigned to the Juvenile Intervention Team.
But there have been three deaths already this year that investigators believe were caused by prescription drug overdoses, Wachsmuth confirmed.
“There is a significant issue with heroin up here, but the reality, I think, is that it was such a shock for people to hear that heroin is a problem, it had a tendency to take the headlines,” Becker said. “There are a lot of things that lead up to that, and one of the major things we're working on up here is prescription medication. And primarily we're talking about Vicodin, Soma and OxyContin. Whether they're obtained legally or illegally, they're getting into the hands of kids.”
The next step up from Vicodin abuse and addiction is often OxyContin. “Right now we're having a significant issue with OxyContin,” Becker said. “Many times it's ground up and smoked, and once that high is not enough, then they move on to heroin. But we're having overdose deaths with Oxycontin, before they even get to the stage of heroin. We had three overdose deaths in January. We believe those were probably OxyContin. However, we are at the whim of the coroner's office for the toxicology reports, and those take a length of time to get back.”
The three overdose deaths this year have involved a 20-year-old man from Stevenson Ranch (Xanax and alcohol confirmed, OxyContin suspected); a 33-year-old Newhall man known by authorities to be a longtime drug addict (OxyContin suspected); and a 23-year-old man from Saugus (Xanax and OxyContin suspected).
“We’re trying to get a grip on the pills overdose situation — it was crazy in January,” Wachsmuth said. “If those numbers were to continue, we’d have terrible statistics for 2012.”
Has the so-called “war on drugs” waged for so many years been a failure in our village?
“The war on drugs is a failure if we look at it as a war, but it starts at home,” Quashen said. “My war on drugs starts in my house. We talked about it every time we could when my kids were growing up. Your war on drugs has to start at home. We're not going to take the drugs off the street — we have to take the need away.”
Next: The Underlying Fear:  Why SCV kids feel the need to start taking drugs in the first place.