The documentary film “Behind the Orange Curtain” exposes a dark secret sequestered in the wealthy enclaves of Orange County: a devastating number of teens and young adults between the ages of 14 and 26, mostly males, are dying from abuse of prescription medications. It’s a topic that few want to openly discuss and most profess to know little or nothing about.
That’s not the case with Detective Larry Bammer, who in recent years investigated numerous narcotics cases involving drug abuse and its lethal consequences. Drugs such as Oxycontin and similar opiates filched from parents’ medicine cabinets figure in the investigations along with those sold by pushers, who obtain them in implausibly large numbers from physicians by “doctor shopping” or by forging prescriptions. “It is something that did not exist a few years ago, but now during the last six months of my investigations, the cases just won’t stop,” said the Laguna Beach police investigator.
In interviews with survivors and investigators and in sobering footage in the county morgue, the filmmakers document what some suggest is an unnoticed epidemic. Local audiences will have a chance to see the film at Laguna Beach’s Canyon Club on June 23 and 24 at 2:30 p.m., 20456 Laguna Canyon Rd. The film has yet to find a distributor after its debut at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival in April.
Though the Canyon Club hosts mostly Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon meetings, its board agreed to screen the film as a public service, said a board member who, in keeping with AA’s creed, declined to be identified. “Alcoholics often also have issues with drugs, but that is not something that AA normally gets involved with,” he said.
“I am seeing more and more young people at Canyon Club meetings,” agreed chairman Jerry Thompson, 77, who shrugged off anonymity when establishing A.I.R Laguna, a gallery specializing in art by artists recovering from all forms of addiction.
It is parents, however, that “came out of the woodwork” after screenings of “Behind the Orange Curtain” and flooded the inbox of producer Natalie Costa.
The owner of Laguna Hills’ Performer’s Academy, Costa was galvanized to act following the drug overdose death of Mark Melkonian, a friend of her teen-age daughter, Brianne.
Costa said the issue of prescription drug abuse by teens has remained unaddressed because few can envision the football team captain with tracks on his arms. Moreover, she said, kids tend to think that prescription pills are inherently safe. Yet addiction is a predictable outcome exacting a toll on a user’s body, mind and wallet. For example, a single pill of Oxycontin, a pain medication that is a favorite of illicit drug users and priced at $1 per milligram, can cost $80 for an 80 mg dose. Consequently, many switch to heroin, a cheaper substance that produces a high similar to the pharmaceutical, said Costa as well as Bammer.
Costa calls the film her own “action movie,” aiming for new laws that would rehabilitate rather than criminalize users and a good Samaritan law that would allow tipsters to alert medical personnel to a victim’s drug use without facing criminal charges.
She is also hoping for tighter oversight of those issuing prescriptions, such as Rowland Heights physician Hsiu-Ying (Lisa) Tseng, accused of second-degree murder in the overdose deaths of three patients. Laguna police allege Tseng prescribed drugs to the man who sold Oxymorphone to Calvin Zach Jones, a Laguna Beach teen-ager who died from complications in 2008 after snorting the drug with friends.
Taking a page from “Scared Straight,” Costa took Brianne along while filming at the county morgue. There, the teen recognized a toe tag of someone she knew.
Costa invested $10,000 of her own money toward the roughly $56,000 budget and solicited funds online via Kickstarter and from executive co-producers including Jamison Monroe, founder and proprietor of the Newport Academy (www.newportacademy.com), a teen rehabilitation center that includes a gender-segregated high-school. She shares production credits with Taylor & Dodge, Tyler W. Kinney, Jamison Monroe, Kevin Strom and Zac Titus, who also wrote the script, which was directed by Brent Huff.
At age 31, Monroe knows addiction, having started on pills at age 14 and getting sober at 24. “I ascribe the epidemic of opiate pill use to over-prescription of ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. Once a kid takes a narcotic prescription that alters the brain, the perceived harmfulness of other prescription drugs like, for example, Vicodin goes down,” he said.
In south county alone, 81 young adults, with a median age of 19, died of drug overdoses, including abuse, accidental death and suicide between 2007 and 2010, showed documents provided by coroner representative LeLonnie A. Sylvester. Just 14 were female.
Causes of death, such as “acute polydrug intoxication,” give credence to Costa decrying the deaths as “an Orange County tsunami.”
Canyon Club: 949 497-1823.
Here’s the link for the tickets: