Local agencies work together to prevent prescription drug abuse

By Diana Giraldo, Reporter

It happens all too often, a young athlete who suffered an injury playing sports is prescribed medication to help alleviate the pain but the remedy turns into a malady itself.

Prescription drug abuse has been identified as one of the most rampant problems in Fresno County and one of the most urgent problems to tackle in the Fresno-Clovis area, said Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who represents District 5 on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

“Teenage prescription drug abuse is on the rise in California and throughout the nation,” said Tou Moua, a Lock it Up Project outreach specialist with the California Health Collaborative. “In Fresno County, prescription drug is the third most abused substance among teens behind alcohol and marijuana.”

Benjamin Milam fell into the statistics at 16-years-old after enduring an injury while playing soccer at Clovis West. The high school soccer player was prescribed painkillers and as a result began consuming them, not just to relieve the pain but to get high.

Milam became addicted to Oxycotton and other drugs then ended up in jail because he was trying to steal to keep up his habit.

“It’s common – it’s happened in the past – where people who do get addicted to drugs will sometimes steal prescribed drugs from their family members in order to get high or continue their addiction,” said Cpl. Jared Benford of the Clovis Police Department.

The best way to combat this growing problem, he said, is to dispose of these drugs after the medication is no longer used.

“If they are not in the house after they are no longer needed, nobody else can use them for what the prescription was not intended for,” he said.

In an effort to bring awareness to the ongoing problem of prescription drug abuse and to diminish the number of teens and young adults scavenging homes to find these drugs, the Fresno north stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, Poochigian and former Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan decided to create an annual event.

“My feeling is that this is probably an underreported drug abuse problem,” Mims said. “I think it’s important to bring this out of the shadows. Let’s talk about this being a real problem and let’s get involved in the front end with prevention before it becomes a law enforcement problem.”

Three years ago, in a meeting with city officials, the congregation was looking for a way to help the community as a whole by addressing a problematic issue that would have a long lasting impact in the lives they were touching.

“When this idea came up we thought it was kind of interesting but it was immediately uncomfortable,” said Dan Darchuck, the public affairs director of the church’s Fresno north stake. “Maybe because it is a problem that in some way has touched most of us, whether through an immediate family member or a close friends or a child of a close friend that’s become addicted to these and possible even worse.”

Darchuck expressed he too has been touched by this community-wide issue.

“We have friend who have died from an overdose to these drugs but nobody wanted to talk about it because it is just one of those things you don’t bring up and you don’t talk about,” he said.

When Darchuck brought the idea to the coordinating committee they were all immediately on board.

“The community is really not aware of how serious this problem is,” said Debra Mortimer, public affairs media assistance for the church. “For me personally it just shows how bad this problem is. I have friends whose children have had hard struggles with it or whose son has died from an overdose as well.”

When Mortimer’s daughter was in high school, she would take her to early morning scripture study class before going to school every day.

“I was a teacher in that class of juniors and seniors 10 or 12 years ago,” she said. “Well now the kids that I had are all adults but within the time they graduated to now, four out of about 21 kids have died from prescription drug overdoses.”

The group decided to confront the abuse head on and bring it to people’s attention and into the light to help educate people as to the problem and how to help avoid it.

With the help of the Lock It Up Project, the church coordinated a drive to distribute fliers in the community and hosted 5K run/walk to bring awareness to the issue.

The first way the church found they could help avoid the problem was to get those drugs out of houses so they are not available for kids get their hands on them, Darchuck said.

“One way that they get their hands on prescription drugs is right out of their families or friends medicine cabinets,” Mims said. “As people store it, they don’t think about it getting old and sitting there but there is a way to get rid of it by giving it to the sheriff’s office and letting us dispose of it properly.”

A couple weeks before the 5K run members of the church do a flier drive where they distribute over 15,000 flyers, urging people to support the 5k and telling them what they should do with their unused drugs, which included dropping them off at the event.

The day of the 5k hundreds of people from the community participate by walking, running and pushing strollers, said Mortimer. Then there is a family festival with bounce houses, a free kids run and a drug drop off point where Mims and some of her staff accept unneeded prescription medication. The first year 77 pounds of drugs were recovered, which does not include the bottles or the packaging – just the prescription pills.

This year at the 3rd annual, “Stomp it Out,” event, held on April 16, the sheriff’s department received 66 pounds of unneeded prescription drugs. Most of those turning in drugs didn’t necessarily participate in the run, but just drove up and dropped them off.

“Over the last three years we have collected over 170 pounds,” Poochigian said. “That’s a lot of prescription drugs when you are talking about pills that don’t weigh very much. It’s 170 pounds of prescription drugs that have been taken out of medicine cabinets that normally would have still been sitting there two or three years later and those are drugs that are now not available.”

The “Stomp it Out” event minimizes the availability of kids getting addicted in the first place, which can induce them to try stinger drugs in the long run.

“What’s sad about prescription drug abuse is that is can lead to heroin abuse,” Mims said. “When someone gets addicted to prescription drugs it’s a very expensive habit and to get the same effect a move is made to use heroin, which is cheaper. And it is a very sad story when we have young people find that that’s the path they take when they become addicted to prescription drugs.”

After the 5K run there were two guest speakers, one of which was Milam, who spoke about his struggle and overcoming his addiction to prescription painkillers.

“It is just something we were not aware of and now that we started to do this we just hear story after story of people that have kept this hidden and now it’s out there way more prominently of what a huge problem it’s become,” Mortimer said. ”Every year we now work to get the word out for people to lock up their drugs or dispose of them.”

The “Stomp it Out” event is only one of the places people can drop of their unused prescription pills. The Clovis Police Department and the Fresno police department have mailboxes where people can drop off any drugs at any time throughout the year.

“This once a year awareness event continuously brings in multiple pounds of prescription drugs and I think the more we do it, the more the word is going to spread and the more impact we will have in the prevention field to keep the young people from becoming addicted in the first place,” Mims said. “It really minimized the availability of kids getting addicted in the first place.”

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