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It Takes a Village to Combat Drug Abuse

Film producer Natalie Costa in the Orange County morgue.

Laguna Beach resident Judy Kelly’s son Tyeson died of an accidental overdose in January 2006, a deadly combination of heroin and alcohol. A voice message later discovered on his phone indicated that one of the last people to see him alive knew that he was in a very bad way.

Ten days ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the 911 Good Samaritan Bill, which aims to avert similar catastrophes by shielding witnesses from prosecution for minor drug offenses.

Such a bill might have saved her son, conceded Kelly, who shared her tragic experience in “Behind The Orange Curtain,” a documentary 2012 film about the epidemic of teenage prescription drug abuse in Orange County that was screened at South Coast Cinemas last Sunday.

The screening was hosted by the South Orange County Coalition, made up of representatives and community groups from Laguna Beach and Dana Point, which aims to prevent and reduce underage drinking and the misuse and abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

About 100 people attended the screening and the subsequent Q&A session with experts, which included Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employee’s Association; Natalie Costa, the film’s executive producer; Marianne Mullen, program director for the Community Alliance Network of Orange County; Irene White, director of special education for Laguna Beach schools; and Kelly, among others.

Laguna Beach High School principal Joanne Culverhouse, vice principal Bob Billinger, school board president Betsy Jenkins, school board member Bill Landsiedel, and school board candidate Tammy Keces also took time out on a Sunday off to attend the event.

The film emphasized that the victims of prescription drug abuse don’t look like junkies. They are our sons and daughters, and often they get the pills from friends. Bammer attributes at least three deaths and suspects a fourth to drug overdoses in Laguna Beach since 2008.

The film shows the necessity of informing children as young as 10 of the dangers of drugs and alcohol use since prescription drugs are widely available to teens from the medicine cabinets of their parents or their friends’ parents and from kids who sell it to support their own habits. Even attentive parents don’t often see the warning signs, according to testimonials from the film.

Judy Kelly in her candle boutique Pure Light, where she turned to keep her son’s memory alive.

“It is in our backyard,” said the film’s executive producer Natalie Costa, of Laguna Niguel, who said that prevention begins with talking to children early.

And yet, among Laguna Beach students, a third of 11th graders reported the topic never came up with their parents, according to results of the 2012 Healthy Kids Survey released this past week.

The film’s promoters, in addition to advocating for greater community and parental awareness and pushing for the Good Samaritan law, also want to see legislation that more strictly controls prescribing and the dispensing of such narcotics as Oxycontin, Oxymorphine, Opana, Ativan, Seroquel, Klonopin and others. Several testimonials described obtaining narcotics by paying corrupt doctors for prescriptions without any actual medical consultation.

The Community Alliance Network reports that in 2010 one in 20 people in the U.S. aged 12 and older reported using prescription painkillers non-medically, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The film’s website includes the statistic that only three percent of opiate addicts recover from their addiction.

LBHS grad Zack Jones, who died in October 2008, counted among Bammer’s cases, and his experience corroborates a number of points made in the film. Outgoing and well-liked by his peers, friends said Zack took drugs for fun. Though he experienced a tumultuous childhood, he had a good relationship with his single mom, Julia, a former methamphetamine addict clean for nine years. He had witnessed his mother’s addiction and recovery, and called her his “hero,” but in the end that didn’t prevent his use. A heavy snorer, Zack didn’t wake from a heavy sleep after a party during which he snorted half tabs of Oxymorphone, a controlled narcotic that carries a warning against its use for those with sleep apnea.

“My son died here at the hands of a kid from LBHS who is still on the streets selling heroin to people,” said Kelly, who described Tye as “a loving, giving, caring, kind human being who lit up a room.”

He started with Oxycontin, she said, and then turned to cheaper heroin. Parents don’t realize that the addicts are not kids in alleys, but kids who are using drugs “in their own parents’ living room or sitting down at the beach,” said Kelly. Kids don’t realize the danger of addiction, even when they’ve seen its devastating effects. Kelly’s nephew, for example, even as he was traumatized by his cousin’s death, wanted to see what the pills were all about and now he’s addicted. “It’s just so heartbreaking,” she said.

Culverhouse praised the film for raising awareness, but emphasized that the issue “cannot be solved at one level.”

Experts agreed that to deal with the problem requires the entire community, beginning with parents.

In addition, on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 6 p.m., Laguna’s police department will host a town hall meeting on the proposed Social Host Ordinance, which would penalize hosts for allowing minors to consume alcoholic drinks at parties in private homes. A first reading is scheduled for Nov. 13.

Besides talking to their children, parents can take action by securing prescription drugs under lock and key. Even if they aren’t worried about their own children, they should worry about their children’s friends gaining access. And if they have drugs they no longer need, they should dispose of them responsibly, such as at drug “give-back” programs held this Saturday, Sept. 29, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the school district parking lot, Blumont and Park Avenues. They should not be flushed because they harm the water supply and they should not be thrown out because desperate users retrieve them from dumps.

To learn more about the film, visit http://behindtheorangecurtain.net. To find future screenings, visit their Facebook page.

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