Two doctors, the Fresno County District Attorney and a former opioid addict took on what they say is the growing problem of prescription painkiller addiction in Fresno County during a town hall meeting Monday night at The People’s Church in northeast Fresno.
Flindt Anderson, founder and president of the Fresno-based Parents and Addicts in Need, said prescription drug abuse is the biggest problem the Fresno and Clovis areas face.
“Ninety-five percent of my clientele live north of Herndon Avenue,” said Anderson, a lifelong Fresnan who founded PAIN in 2009 after going though his own addiction to prescription painkillers.
Drug use starts in high school, said Anderson, who added he sees 18- to 35-year-olds with full-blown addictions to prescription opiates. “We lost three young people from Clovis this last August from overdose. Every kid knows somebody on campus who has these drugs.”
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The most important step is educating kids about the prescription pain killers, Anderson said. “Most parents don’t want to even think their child is doing this. It’s a scary topic.”
A change in behavior, Anderson said, like becoming isolated from activities, dressing differently, changing friends or hanging out for long periods of time in the bedroom or bathroom could indicate drug use.
Dr. Michael Habibe, an emergency physician at St. Agnes Medical Center, said he began seeing a big change in prescription drug habits in the 1990s when pharmaceutical companies began pushing doctors to prescribe opioids like Oxycodone.
“There were no pain killers in my parents’ medicine cabinets,” he said.
Habibe said the problem is society’s growing intolerance to any type of pain.
“We were taught to expect pain should be a zero,” Habibe said. “I tell my patients, ‘My pain will be a zero when I’m dead.’ If you shoot for zero pain, you’re going to be in big trouble.” The real goal, Habibe said, is to be able to function.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to stopping the opioid epidemic, said Dr. Peter Abaci, medical director and co-founder of Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center. But alternative therapy for pain management is a big step in the right direction for some.
Exercise, meditation, mindfulness, yoga and art therapy are a few ways people can deal with pain without medication. After using these types of therapies, brain changes begin to occur, Abaci said.
“Maybe the person still has pain, but now their way of dealing and managing it is different,” Abaci said.
The panelists agreed that rehabilitation facilities need to get better at treating addiction, whether it’s securing more funding or better processes.
“Who thought of 28 days to get clean and sober?” Anderson said. “You don’t take 10, 15, 20 years of addiction and treat it in 28 days. They need long-term treatment, changing the brain and how it works, (getting) to someone’s triggers.”
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp noted that opioid addiction is “not a socioeconomic, geographical, racial addiction.” She also shared a story about how quickly the drug landscape can change.
Three months ago, she said, a car was pulled over in the county that was found to be carrying Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. It was the first recorded in the county, but she believes there must be more on the streets. Although it’s similar to heroin, Fentanyl is more dangerous because of the small amount it takes to become lethal.
“One grain of sand is enough Fentanyl to kill someone,” Smittcamp said.
Panelists also agreed that there is a difference between people who become addicted and those who require prescription pain killers to function.
“But they’re dangerous substances, especially in someone who is prone to addiction,” Habibe said.
Anderson said most people, and even some doctors, don’t entirely understand the addictive qualities opiates possess when taking them after an injury or dental work.
“If you take even 40 to 50 pills as prescribed, you’re not a drug addict,” Anderson said. “But when you stop, you are going to feel uncomfortable.”