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Fighting Ventura County’s Youth Opioid Crisis

Simi Valley Police Chief Da­vid Livingstone, a 33-year veteran of the force, says that in 2009 and 2010, officers “started to notice a lot of OxyContin, also heroin, becoming much more abused in the city, and we also saw an in­crease in overdose deaths. Those two things in combination made us realize it was a big problem.”

It especially alarmed them to see opioid use spreading to kids of high school age and even younger.

“As we did surveillance, the discovery of the younger age group using these drugs was a surprise,” Livingstone says. “Technology has made it much easier for young people to ac­cess drugs. Kids can sit at home and call a heroin delivery service in the same way they can order pizza and have it brought to the house.”

These drugs, he says, are coming over the southern border with Mexico and also from Chi­na and Europe — and have made their way into once-safe commu­nities like those in Ventura Coun­ty. Shawn Wilson, Substance Use Navigator for Adven­tist Health Simi Valley emergen­cy depart­ment, says not a day goes by that he doesn’t encounter someone with an addiction issue.

“In the last five years, there has definitely been an increase in the popularity of opioid use, spe­cifically fentanyl, which is laced in everything, especially street drugs, and the kids who are using street drugs aren’t aware of it,” he says. “Right now, substance abuse across the board is at an all-time high. What people are buying on the streets — what they think is straight heroin or methamphet­amine — if it’s laced with fentan­yl, it’s a fatal combination.”

According to the U.S. De­partment of Health and Human Services, each year an estimat­ed 20 million Americans abuse opioid drugs. Two out of three overdose deaths involve natural or synthetic forms of opioids, including heroin, fentanyl (con­sidered the deadliest and most widely available), oxycodone, codeine and morphine. The opi­oid crisis, deemed a public health emergency in 2017, has been shown to impact people from all backgrounds.

“There’s no limit to whom opioid addiction will affect,” said Pat Montoya, president of the Simi Valley–based nonprofit Not One More, which was founded nearly a decade ago by concerned parents, families and friends who took notice of the rising drug problem sweeping the commu­nity — and decided to do some­thing about it.

Not One More’s mission is “to raise awareness and prevent drug abuse in the community through education and commu­nity partnerships.” While not a rehab center, the organization di­rects addicts to recovery resourc­es where they find help they can use.

“We’re a place people can come and not feel alone,” Mon­toya said in a recent phone inter­view with the Conejo Guardian.

Montoya’s first exposure to the opioid crisis in his commu­nity was an article he read in the local paper about a heroin overdose. Looking into the story more closely, he discovered the victim wasn’t the kind of person you would typically suspect as a heroin addict.

“They are local kids, ath­letes, from homes with loving and supportive families,” he said. “We felt a need to get the news out to the public be­cause we were concerned about what we were seeing as far as an uptick in drug overdoses and addiction to heroin, opioids, prescription drugs and metham­phetamine.”

Not One More was launched following the loss of co-found­er Melissa Siebers’ daughter to a heroin-related accident. Mon­toya and Susan Klimusko helped bring this new kind of drug problem to the attention of the city council, and as a result, the police formed a heroin task force to look at ways to deal with the problem as a community. In ad­dition to enforcement, the police sent resource officers into schools to talk to kids.

“Education is the most im­portant part of this issue, and it starts in the home with family,” Livingstone says. “We need to get the parents the tools to know what to look for. A lot of parents find out their child is addicted to drugs after it’s too late. There has to be structure, and the police are part of that; they are in a way an extension of the family, but find­ing out how we work effectively together is the harder question.”

Not One More has helped build some of those bridges.
“Partnering with groups like Not One More is critical, as it has helped us to better understand the drug problem,” the police chief says. “Enforcement is only going to go so far. If there are no treatment resources after an ar­rest, there’s no incentive for ad­dicts to try to get clean.”

Not One More primarily works with teens. Since its incep­tion in 2012, Not One More has expanded to include 16 chapters in states across the country, from Seattle and New York to Pennsyl­vania and Alabama.

“The cycle of drug addiction for many starts with abusing pre­scription drugs,” said Montoya, sharing the story of his own son, a healthy high school football player who succumbed to heroin addiction after getting hooked on opioid pain medication.

Aliza Thomas, who was born and raised in Newbury Park, re­lates all too well to the Montoya family’s struggles. A former drug addict, Thomas now serves on the board of Not One More and is author of the book Junkie, published under the pseudonym Tommy Zee. She speaks at local middle and high schools and shares her difficult but ultimately inspiring journey to sobriety.

“These drugs change the brain chemically, and the kids be­lieve they are invincible,” Thom­as said in an interview with the Guardian. “If parents are leaving opioids in the medicine cabinet open to everyone in the house, the kids are going to find them.”
Thomas noted that eight out of ten alcoholics are victims of sexual abuse and that drug ad­diction is often a “sub-branch” of domestic and sexual abuse.

“Finding the root of the problem is key,” she explained, “and from there, we can work with addiction recovery and mental health plans.” Thomas further emphasized the impor­tance of spirituality, meditation, and sharing one’s stories during the recovery process.
Central to the mission of Not One More is personal testimo­ny, and Simi Valley native Chris Pickett has spent the past two years of his sobriety relating his story to people across age groups and state lines. Hailing from an upper-middle-class family with two loving, supporting parents in the home, Pickett, at age 13, be­gan abusing his mother’s Vicodin prescription to treat the debilitat­ing migraine headaches he’s had from an early age.

He later admitted that the “void” he was attempting to fill with drugs was, in fact, a hole the drugs themselves helped to create. Yet at the time, the high proved too irresistible to the young aspiring musician, and the prescription pills ultimately served as a gateway drug to hard­er substances, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

By his mid-20s, Pickett had a criminal record, had cycled in and out of rehab, and was spend­ing years in what he described as a “comfortable misery.”

“It was really, really easy to obtain opioids on the streets,” said Pickett. “You could get three or four prescriptions filled in one day.”
By age 18, Pickett was using heroin regularly. “It was cheaper, more accessible, and if the police cracked down on a drug dealer, there was always another one to go to,” he said. “Everybody I knew in my circle of friends ei­ther had tried heroin or was ad­dicted to it at that point.”

But in the early 2000s, as au­thorities began to crack down on pain management clinics where many teens obtained their drugs, prescrip­tions became less widely available. This led to a huge influx of illegally manufactured heroin coming across the Mexico border, said Pickett.

At age 20, with the help of Alcohol­ic Anonymous, Pickett got clean and has dedicated his life to the recovery outreach community, working to connect the teen­age population — of which roughly three percent is impacted by opioid abuse — with resources for drug addiction and mental health issues.

Thomas and Pickett express grave concern about the increasingly wide­spread use of fentanyl among young adults, which, according to the U.S. De­partment of Health and Human Services, factors into 19.8% of all overdose deaths.

“This drug is so terrifying,” said Thomas. “Parents need to know how seri­ous this drug is.”

Not One More helps inform parents and kids through services aimed at pre­vention and education. The nonprofit also works closely with the Ventura County Juvenile Probation Department Diversion program.

“We are receiving so many contacts from around the nation and around the world,” said Montoya. “We base every­thing we do out of love. We show a lot of love to people in addiction, the families who get involved.”

Not One More: “There’s no limit to whom opioid addiction will affect,” said Pat Montoya, presi­dent of the Simi Valley-based nonprofit Not One More, which was founded nearly a decade ago to raise awareness and prevent drug abuse in the community through education and communi­ty partnerships.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I was waiting for the “Granny’s medicine cabinet” explanation of how most kids get hooked on opioids . Please stop with that, personal anecdote notwithstanding. They smoke pot and mix it with beer or liquor. The kid with the weed has other interesting stuff. I agree that over the years, heroin was a cheap drug, readily available, so they tried that.
    The elderly and the veterans with incurable pain need the legitimate prescriptions, and now doctors have been intimidated into prescribing the effective drugs. Take Tylenol. Because some kids were risk takers and moved on from one high to the next.

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