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Sonoma moms take on prescription drug abuse

Signs that your student is abusing drugs or alcohol include:

• Decreased interest in classes and extracurricular activities

• Drastic change in grades or academic performance

• Shifts in sleeping patterns or fluctuations in weight

• Time spent in new social circles, especially among those who have a reputation of abuse

• Withdrawing from friends or acting secretive

• Unexplained changes in behavior or personality

• Uncharacteristic mood swings, depression or irritability

Sonoma County residents needing help with substance abuse or addiction can call 565-7450 for confidential referral and treatment. Visit risksonoma.com for more information.


“Misuse of prescription drugs among our kids is rampant in Sonoma Valley,” says anti-drug crusader Leslie Nicholson. “We live in a bubble, (deluding ourselves) that it can’t or doesn’t happen here.”

But it is happening in Sonoma, says Nicholson, “and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves.”

Nicholson knows about the dangers of narcotics. Her son struggled with drug use in high school, and Nicholson herself was hospitalized over the stress of trying to save her child from the grip of addiction.

Since that time, she has dedicated her time to increasing awareness of the problem locally – and calling upon state and national resources to help parents facing the same problem – through her nonprofit RISK (Resources, Information, Support and Knowledge), a support network for families struggling with youth substance abuse.

“Parents need to be aware,” she said. “Knowledge is power.”

On Thursday, Feb. 16, Nicholson is organizing a community forum on prescription drug use in Sonoma Valley. The panel will be composed of local law enforcement, educators, county health officials, parents and a representative from CVS pharmacy.

Nicholson plans to open the forum with some frightening statistics from the Sonoma County Department of Public Health.

• According to state data, nearly every eight days, a person in Sonoma County dies from an accidental drug overdose – a significantly higher rate than California overall.

• Sonoma Valley Hospital had 81 cases of drug and alcohol emergency treatment for those between the ages of 14 to 25 in just over a year in 2015/2016.

• The rate of emergency room visits for unintentional drug poisoning has increased for Sonoma County residents (age 20-24) by 120 percent in the past ten years.

• Drug overdoses are now the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths nationwide, and around 60 percent of all drug overdoses are linked to opioid use.

• Almost 1 in 4 Sonoma County residents has an opioid prescription.

According to health experts, when people talk about opioids, they are typically referring to pain-relieving medications, like codeine, morphine and oxycodone. The most common brand names are Vicodin and OxyContin. Most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers started with their own prescription for an injury, steal them from a relative or are given them for free by a friend.

“Parents should ask their kids about pharmacy parties, or Skittles parties,” said Nicholson, about gatherings in which people – mostly youth – bring random bottles from their parents’ medicine cabinets and mix the pills in a bowl for participatory popping. “The real danger with those kind of events is that kids have no idea what they are taking, and because the pills come in a prescription bottle, they assume they are safe.”

Nicholson said that when a teen or young adult ends up hospitalized after one of these parties, it is difficult for first responders to provide treatment – because no one can provide them with accurate information as to what drugs are in the victim’s system.

Prescription pills, Nicholson says, are a gateway to other, even more dangerous drugs, like heroin. National statistics indicate that almost 80 percent of new heroin users got their start on prescription painkillers.

“All of the high schools are concerned,” said Nicholson.

Police Chief Bret Sackett agrees it’s a problem at Sonoma Valley High School and at schools throughout the county.

Signs that your student is abusing drugs or alcohol include:

• Decreased interest in classes and extracurricular activities

• Drastic change in grades or academic performance

• Shifts in sleeping patterns or fluctuations in weight

• Time spent in new social circles, especially among those who have a reputation of abuse

• Withdrawing from friends or acting secretive

• Unexplained changes in behavior or personality

• Uncharacteristic mood swings, depression or irritability

Sonoma County residents needing help with substance abuse or addiction can call 565-7450 for confidential referral and treatment. Visit risksonoma.com for more information.

“A wide range of drugs are readily available to high school students right here in Sonoma,” said Sackett. “No high schools are getting a pass, this is an issue for everyone.”

The facts of drug use in Sonoma Valley aren’t statistics to Nicholson, they are teens she knows, and “they are the daughters and sons of your neighbors, your friends,” she said.

Sackett’s department works closely with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents who, he says, can sometimes predict trends in Sonoma Valley a year in advance. The agency also tackles any big drug cases that involve the Valley.

Last year, the DEA intercepted 18,000 Xanax pills that were en route to an address in Sonoma Valley.

Hearing facts like these keeps Nicholson up at night.

“I had no idea of my options when my son was struggling,” she said. “We want to support parents while they go through this incredible difficult time. We want to take some of the burden off of them in a supportive, non-judgmental way.”

She noted that parents particularly need support after an overdose incident.

“When the hospital finishes saving your child, they just send you home,” she said.

For Nicholson, the lowest point came one day when she heard an ambulance and her first thought that it was heading for her son… and, in her mind, she began planning his memorial service.

Nicholson hopes to soon be able to provide a hotline where parents speak confidentially and be directed to resources. She would love to even get a flight assistance fund set up to help parents who need to fly a minor out to rehab.

Sue Albano’s late son Anthony was hospitalized several times before a fatal overdose in 2016 at the age of 22.

Anthony’s problems began when he was prescribed Vicodin when he broke his ankle playing freshman football, Albano said.

“He was a sweet, popular, athletic kid,” she said. “But he experienced that opiate sensation and he wanted that feeling again.”

Albano believes it’s “irresponsible” to dismiss the level of prescription-drug abuse in Sonoma.

“Drugs are being sold at our middle schools, at the high school. It’s happening anywhere and everywhere,” asserts Albano. “Parents need to think twice before filling a painkiller prescription for their teen, and to check their own medicine cabinets carefully. I’m not talking about kids on the fringe, this issue is happening with nice, normal kids, right here in the Valley.”

Albano will participate in the panel on Feb. 16 and contribute to the conversation on why this might be happening, warning signs and support for parents.

The RISK community forum on prescription drug abuse in Sonoma Valley will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in the band room at Altimira Middle School. The event will be live broadcast and rebroadcast by KSVY-TV. For more information, email risksonomavalley@gmail.com.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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