Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Changing Face of Heroin Addiction

Erica Catton didn’t fit the stereotype of a heroin addict. She grew up in a suburban area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, not on the streets. Her parents weren’t addicts. They weren’t abusive. It was an innocent and legal prescription that sent her down the road to addiction.

“It was vicodin that got me started,” said Catton. The 32-year-old, who is more than ten years sober, works as an executive at Narcanon Arrowhead, a drug treatment facility in Canadian, Oklahoma. “I was prescribed vicodin for my wisdom teeth, got hooked on those, then started taking oxycontin. Then I got physically addicted to oxycontin to where I would get sick when I would stop taking them. From there I went to heroin.”

But Catton is not alone. As more and more people develop addictions to prescription drugs like vicodin and oxycontin, they’re also finding out that when they can no longer afford their habit, heroin is a cheaper alternative.

According to San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Ross, an 80 milligram oxycontin costs upwards of $80 on the street. A gram of heroin, which produces a very similar high, costs roughly $50 a gram. For an addict who is hard up for cash, the switch is a no-brainer.

Ross, who works predominately with juvenile addicts in San Diego, explained that he has seen the demographic of heroin users shift from inner-city kids to those in affluent, suburban neighborhoods.

San Diego in particular has seen disturbing numbers in terms of heroin-related deaths in recent years. In 2010, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office reported 71 unintentional deaths related to the drug, six of whom were teenagers. And while the total numbers for 2011 have yet to be calculated, it has not shown much promise in terms of a decrease in those types of death.

“There have been 46 cases of heroin-related deaths in the first half of 2011,” said San Diego Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas. “This is the highest we’ve seen in the first half of the year for the last ten years.”

As much of the heroin is arriving in the United States via Mexico, San Diego, with its multiple ports of entry, is especially vulnerable. The California Border Alliance Group reports that the increase in heroin seized at the U.S.-Mexico border is likely the result of the reduction of opium poppy eradication efforts, which has also fueled rising heroin production Mexico. Drug trafficking organizations have also grown in considerable strength in recent years.

Cross-border tunnels, which allow smugglers to carry illegal drugs into the United States without being detected, are being discovered regularly. These drugs quickly find their way onto the streets of the U.S., and often into the hands of teenage addicts.

Ross has also seen growing numbers of addicted teenagers heading across the San Ysidro Port of Entry and into Tijuana. In light of violence in border towns in recent years, this puts teenagers who cross over in extreme danger.

“If you go down there and sit by the border, on almost any given day, even the mornings and afternoons, you can pick out the ones who are going down there and crossing over,” said Ross. “They kind of fit that profile, that younger, white Caucasian kid…and they can go to any pharmacy down there, or any street-level dealer. I mean there’s so many literally within walking distance of the border. It’s pretty simple.”

Heroin addiction is even reaching places in the United States where it was once rarely an issue. In his Dec. 2011 column for Inforum, North Dakota U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon explained that his office has seen “a marked increase in the distribution and use of heroin” in the communities of Fargo-Moorhead. Midwest cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a place some would consider to be off the beaten path, have seen 22 deaths due to heroin overdose in the past two years.

Julie Brunetto, Clinic Director at the El Cajon Comprehensive Treatment Clinic in California has seen a notable increase in those seeking treatment for heroin addiction. She’s also noticed young people smoking or shooting up to two grams of heroin a day, many of whom got to that point through a prescription drug addiction. The addicts are not just getting these legal drugs through friends, but also through dealers who sell them, she said.

Wikimedia Commons Photo

Crime is also high among addicts. In order to avoid painful withdrawals from the drug, they find themselves doing things they never thought themselves capable of.

“When you have a habit of 20, 30, 50, 80 dollars a day, and you’re a 21 or 22-year-old person, you can’t support that habit, you have to steal,” said Catton. “For me, I didn’t think that I was necessarily a bad person, I mean I didn’t want to do things that were wrong. But the drugs become such a central pull.”

Heroin addiction carries some hefty consequences, both physical and mental. But beating an addiction to heroin can be a tall order. Given the intense withdrawal symptoms users face while trying to get clean, detoxification and recovery are often essential to kicking the habit.

“Withdrawals are painful. Just imagine having the flu,” said Catton. “You have back aches, you throw up. It’s really, really tough. You’re severely depressed. The more that you use, the worse it is, to the point where some people literally have to go to the hospital and be mentally rebalanced because your body becomes so physically addicted to it.”

Brunetto stressed the importance of medically-assisted drug-recovery programs for users to get clean. She also noted the need for behavioral changes in order to be successful, and that an addiction to opiates can take up to two years to get under control.

Realizing that this new trend often begins with juveniles getting using the prescription drugs found in the medicine cabinets of their own homes, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced their first “Prescription Drug Take-Back Day” in Aug. 2010, which specifically calls for people to drop off their unused or unwanted prescription drugs at designated sites.

“Prescription drug abuse is the Nation’s fastest-growing drug problem, and take-back events like this one are an indispensible tool for reducing the threat that the diversion and abuse of these pose to public health,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy, in an Aug. 2010 press release.

While there are treatment programs for juveniles busted with drugs, officers who deal with the problem firsthand often become frustrated with their limited resources. The judicial system is ultimately responsible for determining who needs help and who needs to be locked up, but officers have a hard time not feeling some compassion and personal empathy with some of the kids they send through the system, Ross said. Ross also emphasized the importance of involving parents in the process.

“One encounter with us [law enforcement] isn’t the solution,” said Ross. “It’s going to be a long, long process unfortunately.”

Ultimately, time will have to tell if the public is getting the message about the link between prescription drugs and heroin addiction.

Spring Valley Community Center Holds Youth Basketball Awards Banquet

*Published at March 3, 2012

Family and friends watch as players were honored for their skills on the court.

Along with their family, friends and coaches, members of the Spring Valley Youth Basketball League packed the Spring Valley Community Center for an awards banquet Friday.

After a meal of pizza, salad and cookies, all eyes were on the stage for both team and individual awards. While every player received an award of some kind, members of championship teams received trophies. Individual awards included “Most Valuable Player”, “Most Improved” and an award for sportsmanship. Winners of the individual awards were determined by a vote by all of the coaches.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Step in the Right Direction: Scripps Institute’s Heroin Vaccine

As San Diego continues to see an increase in heroin addiction and heroin-related deaths, a local company is making headlines with a vaccine designed to curb addiction to the dangerous drug.

Recognizing that traditional recovery programs may sometimes not be enough for some users, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA announced the development of a successful vaccine against the heroin high in July 2011.

The news of the vaccine has also come at a crucial time. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office reported that in 2010, there had been 71 unintentional deaths related to heroin.

“We saw a very robust and specific response from this heroin vaccine,” said George F. Koob, chair of the Scripps Research Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders, in a July 20 press release. “I think a humanized version could be of real help to those who need and want it.”

The vaccine, intended for people already addicted, works by stopping heroin, and all of the other psychoactive compounds metabolized by heroin, from reaching the brain and producing the euphoric effects. And unlike vaccines developed for heroin in the past, the vaccine being developed by Scripps researchers focuses on binding psychoactive metabolites that most easily crossed the blood-brain barrier.

“The other antibodies sought to bind everything, while ours is a more focused approach,” said Scripps Institute Research Associate Neil Stowe.

As the vaccine is still in the pilot stages, and has only been tested on laboratory rats, it’s unclear what the dose will be for the average human addicted to heroin.

“The antibody titer [concentration] levels start to decline after about a month in rats,” said Stowe. “So the person would have to continue receiving boosts for as long as they want the antibody titers.”

Because heroin withdrawal symptoms are so intense, addicts are often given methadone, a synthetic opioid which produces many of the same effects as heroin. But the use of methadone can also cause side effects, and in some cases, even cause recovering heroin addicts to form addictions to it while in detox.

“There were no side effects caused in rats,” said Stowe of the Scripps heroin vaccine. “Hopefully this will translate to a human vaccine. Vaccines are generally accepted as safe for humans. However, studies will have to be performed to determine if the heroin vaccine does have side effects in humans.”

“It sounds great,” said Julie Brunetto, Clinic Director of the El Cajon Comprehensive Treatment Clinic, of the vaccine. “Anything would be great to help people get off heroin.”

Others don’t see the vaccine as solving many of the underlying emotional issues that come along with addiction.

“When you’re an addict, you’re an addict, and you want to get that high, you want to get that buzz,” said 32-year-old Erica Catton, a former heroin addict who now works as an executive at Narcanon Arrowhead in Canadian, Oklahoma, which is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most successful drug rehab centers. “So if you have the vaccine, you can’t do the heroin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not in that mindset of wanting to get that buzz or high.”

While there is currently no specific release date for the vaccine, Scripps claims that the preliminary data they’ve gotten from their research into the vaccine is excellent, and is currently working on its optimization.

Local Group Spearheads Otay Water Board Recall

*Published at November 8, 2011

Taking the first steps toward a possible recall of four members of the Otay Water District Board of Directors, a small group of angry ratepayers rallied at the Spring Valley-East Communities Center Oct. 28 to discuss their options, and to organize themselves.

The group, initially organized by Division Three ratepayer Dan Connell, say they are fed up with rate increases, poor management and increases in Otay’s employee benefits.

But a lot has led up to this point.

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Thirteen Teens Arrested In East County Curfew Sweep

*Published at October 3, 2011

In an effort to prevent teens from becoming victims or participants in criminal activity, members of community organizations teamed up with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a curfew sweep of parts of Spring Valley and Lemon Grove Friday night.

Coming together in the operation, which was based out of the Spring Valley-East Communities Center on Spring Drive, were Sheriff’s deputies, officials from the Grossmont Union High School District, several faith-based organizations, and San Diego Youth Services. According to deputies, the curfew sweeps are conducted every couple of months.

With the exception of Lemon Grove, which enforces a curfew of 11 p.m., all other parts of the county enforce a 10 p.m. curfew for those under 18 years of age. Deputies began the sweep shortly after 10 p.m., only contacting teens who did not fall into several exceptions of the curfew law, some of which include going to and from jobs or school activities. The operation ran until just after 1 a.m.

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Elderly Targeted In Recent Phone, Door-to-Door Scams

*Published at September 10, 2011

When Dorothy and Dave White got a phone call from their grandson telling them that he had been arrested and needed $3,000 to make bail, they wanted to help. But the person who had called was certainly not their grandson.

The Whites, Lomita Village residents who are in their late seventies, were nearly taken in by a common phone scam. The question, “Do you know who this is?”  is usually the way the scammers get the names of relatives. In the White’s case, the voice at the other end of the line sounded just like their grandson Landis. ‘Landis’ told the them that he had been in an alcohol-related accident in British Columbia, and gave them an 800 number, which he claimed to be a lawyer who would arrange for his bail.

The ‘lawyer’ wanted $3,000 to bail their grandson out. When the White’s hesitated at the large amount, the number was dropped to $2,000, which they agreed to pay. They were given instructions regarding where and how to send the money. Luckily, just as they were going to wire the $2,000 at a Wal-Mart, a woman happened to ask them why. When the Whites repeated their story, they were told it was a common scam. A quick phone call to their grandson Landis confirmed that it wasn’t true.

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Spring Valley Residents Enjoy 'Comfort' of Home at Local Hot Spot During Blackout

*Published at September 9, 2011

Ironically taking place on one of the hottest days of the year, Spring Valley and all of San Diego County suffered one of the worst power outages in its history Thursday.

The first outages were reported around 3:30 p.m., and San Diego Gas & Electric Company quickly held a press conference, explaining that the outage included all of San Diego County, parts of Baja California, and Imperial County. SDG&E claims that an “event” took place somewhere between San Diego and Arizona, which caused a chain reaction of outages for scores of miles.

For many, the blackout tested the emergency plans of both families and businesses alike. Many found themselves without batteries, food, and another valuable commodity in the triple digit heat: ice. At the Albertsons at 9831 Campo Road in Casa de Oro, dozens of people lined up outside the doors for a quick chance to get in and purchase some essentials. The store allowed small groups of customers to get what they needed until about 7:30 p.m.

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'Take Me Home' Program Helps the Developmentally Disabled

*Published at August 8, 2011

Because of a new program initiated by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, families and caregivers of people with developmental disabilities can breathe a small sigh of relief.

Announced by the Sheriff’s Department in June 2010, the "Take Me Home” program is a regional special-needs registry implemented to help families of those with disabilities such as Alzheimer’s and autism. Because many people with these disabilities have difficulty identifying themselves and communicating their needs, the registry provides law enforcement officers with information necessary to assist them and to bring them home.

Take Me Home was envisioned by Palomar College Police Officer Brian Herritt. Herritt, the father of an autistic child, had also responded to incidents involving people with special needs, and approached the Sheriff’s Department with his idea.

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Sunday, January 1, 2012


It’s a pristine, sunny afternoon in Costa Mesa, CA, and from the front of the quiet, unassuming home on Congress St., it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on inside. Walking up the drive, clues begin to emerge: signs about camera equipment, wires snaking away to unknown destinations, lights, filters. And then comes the call, ”Quiet on the set! Action!”

Director Joe O'Brian on the set of "Coffee and Games"

While it has all the inner workings and the feel of a professional Hollywood movie set, students are actually running the show here. It’s the seventh year of National University’s digital cinema MFA residency, and some of the students have come from as far away as Bulgaria, Canada, China and Israel for this experience.

The students have also come from all walks of life. Silvia Luz, originally from Brazil, was formerly a lawyer. While enrolled in the media and communications program at Grossmont College in San Diego, Luz had an instructor who told her about the program.

Ben Mercier, Director of Photography on the film “No Regrets”, is a former marine who now hails from Hawaii. Mercier saw action in Iraq, and explained that working in film helps him with his PTSD. “Holding a camera is kind of like holding a weapon,” he said.

The set of "No Regrets"

The four-week program is designed with a hands-on approach, teaching students various aspects of the film industry. Even before the July 4 start date, students and staff were hard at work preparing for the residency, with directors choosing the scripts, and production teams being formed.

The scripts for the three short films were all written by Desiree Poteet, a fellow in National University’s professional screenwriting MFA program. According to Professor Warren, the directors were allowed to choose scripts that fit their own style and personality.

The first week of the residency included a directing workshop, led by former actress and director Nancy Malone. Malone appeared in many television shows during the 1950’s and 60’s, and won an Emmy in 1993 for producing the television special Bob Hope: The First 90 Years. During this workshop, students learned how to interact with professional actors, supplied by Malone.

Set of "No Regrets"

Later in the week, students visited Panavision in Woodland Hills, CA, for the camera movement workshop, and learned to use equipment like steady-cams, Panaflex cranes, and Fisher dollies, which were donated to the program by the JL Fisher Company. Four camera operators from the Society of Camera Operators were also on hand to offer assistance.

“It gives all the students hands-on working with the equipment and seeing how you can incorporate these different tools in your cinematic design,” said program director Professor Alyn Warren.
July 16 found the students at the home of Alyn Warren, where they were wrapping up the last day of production on the film “No Regrets”. The final scene of the film was set at night, and black screens and curtains covered the French doors. Various members of the crew huddled around a monitor out in the covered porch. Every now and again, assistant director Silvia Luz would poke her head out to shout something to them.

Professor Warren drops in and out of the action like a shepherd of sorts. In addition to being the director of the program, he’s also the executive producer on all the films, guiding the students in proper techniques and procedures. Christopher Rossiter, the production instructor, is also there making sure everything is running smoothly. On the set, he’s the production supervisor. Acting as Production Manager is Leroy Thomas, who was a student at NU’s first digital cinema MFA residency in 2005.

Director Ryan McKinney on the set of "No Regrets"

Thomas, Warren and Rossiter also worked behind the scenes to make certain that the students had the equipment and transportation they needed for all three films.

After two solid weeks of editing the three short films, they were shown to the students and guests at a screening at NU’s Los Angeles campus July 30.

Two versions of each film were shown at the screening, and the audience was given an opportunity to offer feedback to the three directors, Ryan McKinney (“No Regrets”), Gil Ben-Haroch (“He’s A Bleeder”) and Joe O’Brian (“Coffee And Games”).

“It was a wonderful experience,” said actor Cal Bartlett, who played George, a blind and crippled old man in “No Regrets”. “I’ve been an actor for a lot of years and I’ve worked on a lot of projects, and I thought Ryan [McKinney] was a terrific director, the crew was great, everybody. The communication was wonderful, I really felt like I was on a solid, professional movie set.”

Bartlett is no stranger to a professional movie set, either. He received his SAG card in 1962, and did a lot of work in television including series such as “Bonanza” and “Remington Steele”. He even acted alongside Clint Eastwood in “Paint Your Wagon”.

“I had a nice moment watching this with an audience because I really saw the collaboration,” said Pablo Giustorobelo, who was the producer on “No Regrets”. “Feels like magic to me.”