Drug and alcohol abuse is considered California’s No. 1 premature killer. In California, 40,000 emergency room visits each year are drug-related. Though illicit drug and alcohol abuse is a statewide problem, it is particularly prevalent in Santa Cruz County. Unlike other areas that often see spikes of one particular drug, the area’s abuse rates cover a range of drugs – from marijuana and cocaine to hallucinogens and prescription drugs.
The statistics offered by the Santa Cruz County Health Department show a large disparity between the state and the county. The percentage of adults who need help for emotional/mental problems or drug and alcohol problems for California is 15 percent, and for just Santa Cruz County, it’s 22 percent. These numbers – and the fact that they are rising in Santa Cruz County – suggest that the county is fighting a larger battle against drugs than other areas in the state. In fact, the drug and alcohol issues of Santa Cruz County top the state – an unfortunate distinction.
How Commonly Abused Drugs Have Become More Dangerous
The problems of Santa Cruz County have recently become part of a national spotlight on the drug epidemic in the United States. There have been at least four high-profile overdoses in Santa Cruz County that resulted in fatalities in 2015, all under the age of 25 and stem from a mix of drugs known as a cocktail.
The mixes of drugs vary, they can include:
- Allergy Medication
- Among Many Others Drugs
Some of these drugs speed up the heart and nervous system, while others slow it down. Some users will use one kind of drug to counteract the effects of the other, assuming that because they both aren’t downers, they can be taken together, but combining any of them can be deadly. The inclusion of alcohol adds an even higher level of danger to the drugs.
Part of the issue in Santa Cruz County, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, is that many of these drugs have become more readily available. Some of the most common abusers in the area are young adults and adolescents – people who aren’t aware of how harmful it can be to mix drugs with alcohol or other substances.
The Demographics of a Typical Santa Cruz County Drug User
Though users come in all ages, those in Santa Cruz County tend to be young. The typical Santa Cruz County abuser is an adolescent or young adult. Many users are even in their late teens or early 20s. In 2013, about 23 percent of teens and young adults reported using an illegal drug within the past month. Of those, about 27 percent of females reported needing help due to illicit drug use. Only 18 percent of males reported needing help. To get a clearer picture of drug epidemic in Santa Cruz Country, consider statewide statistics. In the entire state of California, only 18.5 percent of adults seek help for drug and alcohol abuse, making the statistics significantly higher for Santa Cruz County.
Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Users
Though addiction at any age can be crippling, those who seem to struggle the most in this area are young. Adolescents in Santa Cruz County are struggling with addiction at an alarming rate and this is a problem for many reasons. The brain is still maturing during adolescence. The prefrontal lobe – which controls emotions, is not completely developed, so this demographic doesn’t fully appreciate the long-term consequences of drug use or the dangerous behaviors in which they may show while on drugs.
Altogether, about 40 percent of Santa Cruz County students report using marijuana, inhalants, or prescription drugs in the past year. Marijuana use is significantly higher for this county than in the rest of California. Though marijuana is now legal for residents of California, users must be at least 21 years old – just as with alcohol – which is also commonly and secretly abused by teens.
The Far-Reaching Effects of Drug Abuse Among Adolescents
According to recent studies, such as the California Healthy Kids Survey, ninth and eleventh graders are the two groups of high school students most likely to use drugs. Many of these students voluntarily report marijuana or alcohol use. In Santa Cruz County, one third of the eleventh graders reports binge drinking and 30 percent report regular marijuana use. Nationwide, 1 in 5 high school juniors report binge drinking. Across California, only 20 percent of high school students report marijuana use.
Abuse Drugs or Alcohol While Driving
Most California students are able to begin driving during their sophomore year of high school. Partly because they are new to driving and partly because their brains are still developing, these drivers are already a risk on the roads. The risks to themselves and others skyrocket if they abuse drugs or alcohol while driving.
Effects of Substance Abuse in Santa Cruz County
The number of alcohol-involved vehicle accidents for licensed drivers has climbed steadily in the past decade. Accident numbers remain significantly higher for Santa Cruz County than the entire state of California. When people are driving while the influence of any drug or medicine, the consequences go far beyond themselves. Accidents involving people under the influence of drugs or alcohol often involve others. They must live with the aftermath of someone else’s choice to drive while intoxicated.
Effects of substance abuse on those who use are countless and can be permanent. The effects are heightened when the abuse starts young. Teen and young adult drug users often experience emotional and behavioral problems; anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are common. Drug abuse may mask an underlying mental disorder that causes these issues, such as bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. These disorders can lead to fighting, stealing, and other negative behaviors.
Drug and alcohol abusers are more prone to engage in risky sexual behavior, and that’s especially true of adolescents who are likely engaging in sexual activity for the first time. Unprotected sex is common, leading to higher incidences of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In Santa Cruz County and California, the risk of HIV and AIDS is down from 10 years ago. However, drug abusing teens and young adults remain at higher risk than those who don’t engage in substance abuse. They are also at higher risk for Hepatitis B and C and other blood-borne infections.
Drug Abuse, Learning Issues, and Brain Damage
Drug and alcohol abuse damages short-term memory and can lead to long-term memory problems. This can cause long-term learning problems in teens and young adults. In some cases, substance abuse masks learning disabilities. These disabilities are dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia. Substance abusers may purposely use drugs to self-medicate. For instance, those with undiagnosed ADHD may find certain drugs calm them or help them stay focused. Drug abuse will continue to mask learning disabilities or other diagnoses from kids in this age group. Others will use drugs to dull the difficulty of their lives that may involve family strife, bullying, or fear of failure.
If adolescent drug and alcohol use remains untreated, severe brain damage can occur. Existing learning disabilities and other problems may become more severe. Over time, brain cells will shrink, further impairing decision-making and emotional control. Some teens and young adults experience amnesia from drug use. Overdose is common because of adolescents lack of decision-making skills at this age. Other health risks include seizures, coma, and eventually death. In severe cases, the drug user may enter into a vegetative state. Some teens and young adults end up in nursing homes, needing full-time round the clock care.
Substance Abuse and Arrests for Adults and Juveniles
Juvenile arrests had dropped 43 percent nationally in the early part of the decade. However, they are back up with the rise of abuse since 2013. Along with increased drug use comes a slight increase in truancy and alcohol or drug-related misdemeanor arrests. Despite an overall decrease in juvenile substance abuse arrests, juvenile detention rates remain high. Males and Latinos of both sexes remain are overrepresented in California’s youth justice system.
There is less forgiveness in the judicial system for adult addicts. Incarceration is a real consequence of drug and alcohol abuse, it stops many from seeking the help they need. In 2012, about 45 percent of bookings into the Santa Cruz County Jail were alcohol-related. Many arrestees were dual diagnosis, suffering from mental disorders as well as substance abuse. The number of dual diagnosis arrestees has increased since 2012. Because drug use may mask other disorders, statistics may underrepresent the actual numbers.
The Corresponding Rise of Substance Abuse and STDs
Teens are vulnerable to drug use, but the incidence among Santa Cruz County adults is also high. Adult alcohol and drug treatment admissions are well above average in Santa Cruz County and have steadily increased since the early 2000s. Unfortunately, cases of STDs seem to rise with increases of drug use. As of October 2016, cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis have increased. Adults younger than 35 were particularly at risk; females were most at risk for chlamydia, and men having sex with men were most at risk for syphilis. One congenital case of syphilis was reported in October 2016.
Finding Help for Drug Addiction in Santa Cruz County, California
Despite the risks associated with drug and alcohol use, many users do not receive treatment or even ask for help. In fact, across the US, statistics indicate 85 percent of drug users won’t ask for the help they need. Often, those who are addicted to drugs are reluctant to request help due to fear of legal repercussions. Even for those who are fighting addictions to legal substances, such as alcohol, there is still a stigma that prevents many from seeking help.
In other cases, though, there is a more concrete reason for not finding the appropriate help. Many drug users don’t have health insurance that would cover addiction treatment. Though the Affordable Care Act does offer some help, many addicts have no type of insurance at all. Only about 35 percent of addicts without health coverage will ever seek treatment. Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) is available at the federal level. Most may not realize it can be used to help with addiction, but only as few as 0.6 percent of people use it. TANF usage has steadily declined since the late 1990s and early 2000s. About 44 percent of people who use temporary aid spend it on basic assistance or childcare, leaving little room for drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment.
Eligibility for temporary aid is a problem for many drug users. California’s version of TANF, CalWorks, requires recipients have a low income, be under-employed or unemployed, and be a US citizen or legal alien. The federal TANF program requires recipients return to work no more than two years after receiving assistance. Severe drug and alcohol abuse impede the ability to meet this requirement. Under or unemployed substance abusers may not receive enough aid to pay for rehabilitation programs. The legal residency requirement may prevent some people from getting help.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse Statistics for Hospitals
There were about 845,000 drug and alcohol-related emergency department visits nationwide in 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). That number has climbed since, particularly in states like California; more than 400 of those visits involved marijuana, and more than 300 involved alcohol mixed with drugs.
Most people brought to emergency departments for substance abuse are between the ages of 18 and 25. Of these patients, most receive care due to addiction to marijuana or prescription painkillers. Heroin – one the most addictive of all drugs – is the next most commonly used drug, with about 228 emergency department visits in 2011.
Hospital Discharges Involving Addiction
Drug-related hospital discharges in Santa Cruz County have been well above the national average for more than a decade. Although this trend is declining, the rate can be as high as 10 percent of people per 100,000. Adverse events after hospital discharge are common for drug-abuse patients, too. Adverse events include non-permanent or permanent disability, several days of ongoing symptoms, and in a few cases, continuing minor symptoms. In 2016, about 19 percent of patients in the US had an adverse event; most of these were preventable.
Currently, hospital discharge statistics only reflect injuries or illnesses directly attributed to substance abuse. They do not include dual diagnoses or cases in which substance abuse is partially responsible for the onset of physical symptoms. Thus, healthcare professionals find it more difficult to diagnose and treat substance abuse patients adequately. Only about 20 percent of drug abusers with health insurance will seek emergency treatment and rehabilitation. Even with insurance, few patients receive follow-up care. Without adequate follow-up and rehabilitation, these patients are far less likely to stay sober. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends ongoing follow-ups and a stay in rehab of three months or longer.
Understanding the Drug Problem in Santa Cruz County, California
There are several factors contributing to Santa Cruz County’s rise in drug abuse. The area – like other areas that struggle with drug addiction – also faces other challenges. Homelessness and transience are major factors. The county, though working hard to find answers, doesn’t have the resources it needs to help all who suffer. Additionally, it seems as if the rise in drug use has spread from those on the street to younger adults – those in high school and the nearby The University of California, Santa Cruz.
Substance abuse disorders and treatment cost Santa Cruz County about $207 million per year. Only 3.3 percent of that total is spent on treatment. Treatment quality constantly needs improvement, and access remains unavailable for a large number of users. Repeat offenders are another huge problem. Healthcare professionals, drug treatment providers, and police often don’t work together – healthcare professionals report treating the same people in their emergency departments, hospitals, and clinics. Many addicts are, sadly, simply lost in the shuffle.
Finally, dual diagnosis – the term used to describe those who have both a mental illness and a substance-abuse disorder – remains an obstacle for many substance abusers in Santa Cruz County. It’s possible that the high rate of drug incidents involving younger users is the focus. This might mean older adults who suffer from both mental health issues and substance abuse may not be getting attention or the correct diagnosis.
Identifying and Solving Substance Abuse in Santa Cruz County
The Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency and Board of Supervisors are enacting a multi-phase plan to help solve the area’s drug and alcohol issues. Strategic planning efforts began in June 2013. Phase 1, which began December 1 of that year, included gathering community input and identifying key issues, such as commonly used drugs and treatment access. With this information, Santa Cruz County HSA was able to propose workable goals and outcomes.
Phase 2 began in February 2015. Its focus was reporting on current substance abuse disorders and evaluating current treatment programs. During this phase, changes to the Drug Medi-Cal (DMC) program were proposed and made to provide more people with affordable treatment. Short-and long-term financing for treatment facilities and other programs was examined during Phase 3, April – May 2015.
Better Treatment Opportunities for Substance Abuse
The good news is that people are seeking treatment. Since the HSA plan implementation, most treatment facilities around Santa Cruz County have increased their clientele. Prevention coalitions, such as United Way of Santa Cruz, also have seen an increase in funding, which goes a long way to help those who are addicted and can’t afford help. Along with substance abuse treatment funding, mental health treatment funding has increased in Santa Cruz County this past year.
Seeking Treatment for Substance Abuse and Alcohol Abuse in Santa Cruz County
Drug and alcohol abuse rates in Santa Cruz County are now at astounding levels, and residents of the area are eager to seek help to end their addictions. At Elevate Addiction Services, we invite members of the Santa Cruz County community that are struggling with substance abuse, chemical dependency and alcohol abuse to contact us and allow us to show you that there is hope for recovery, and we will work with you to achieve the recovery that you seek.