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Interview with Natalie Costa

This film producer of 'Behind the Orange Curtain' talks about the problem of prescription drug addiction among our kids, and why it's bigger here in beautiful OC than you probably ever imagined.

RALPH PALUMBO

In May of 2010, producer Natalie Costa took her daughter to her first funeral. It was not for an older relative or aged family friend. It was the funeral of one of her daughter’s classmates, Mark. He had not died in a car accident or of some rare disease. He had died of a drug overdose – a prescription drug overdose.

As shocking as it was for Costa’s daughter, however, it was more eye-opening to Costa herself. “I always thought I was a pretty in-the-know mom, that I had a good understanding of what was going on with kids today,” she says. “I quickly discovered that I had no idea.”

Costa made it her mission to get an idea. In fact, after discovering that Mark had died of prescription drugs, Costa dedicated herself to making herself and others aware of what one DEA special agent has called a bona fide epidemic in Orange County.

“People think because we live in a nice place, in nice houses with nice cars, that we’re somehow immune to drug addiction. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Costa.

In fact, OC’s affluence might be one thing feeding the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, she says. Why? Because prescription drugs are not cheap. In fact, one shocking truth Costa discovered was that many prescription drug addicts hooked on drugs such as OxyContin (one of the most popular) end up switching to heroin because it delivers the same high, but for far less money.

Costa was so shocked and concerned by that and other facts about prescription drug addiction among OC kids that she produced an award-winning film, Behind the Orange Curtain. Featuring dozens of interviews with former prescription drug addicts as well as the families of recovering and deceased addicts, the film is a forceful reminder that this problem strikes all socio-economic groups.

We sat down with Costa to ask about the dangers of prescription drug addiction and why it’s more prevalent than you probably think here in OC.

How did you become aware of this problem?
My daughter’s friend from grade school, Mark, passed away. We learned it was from an overdose of Opana, a prescription drug. I consider myself a “mom-in-the know” but I had no idea what Opana was. (I now know it’s used for end-stage cancer patients.) I had no idea that prescription drugs were being used recreationally here in Orange County. I was shocked to learn that hundreds of young men and women in this area have died from overdoses. It was even more shocking to learn how many young men and women, from good families, good homes, have drug addiction problems.

What drove you to make the film?
Going to Mark’s funeral. There were thousands of young men and women that showed up, beside themselves with grief. I thought for sure losing such a dynamic and popular young man would be a wake-up call. Unfortunately, it was not. At his memorial service on the beach, young men were getting high (smoking marijuana) as a tribute to Mark in heaven. I knew standing in the back of that church that day something had to be done. I own The Performer’s Academy, a performing arts school in Laguna Hills. Brent Huff is a film director that teaches workshops at the school. He has a daughter in her early 20s and I knew that he would be the perfect person to help tell this story.
 
How big is the problem of prescription drug abuse?
According to the DEA, it’s an epidemic across this country. It’s in every city, county and state in America. For the first time in history, death by prescription drugs outnumbers death by automobiles. Every 19 minutes we lose someone from a drug overdose in the U.S.

Is the problem getting better or worse?
It’s getting worse, but we are finally starting to shed light on the subject. The introduction to drugs starts off simple: It’s done for a good time. The problem is that prescription drugs like OxyContin, Xanax and Opana are highly addictive opiates and used incorrectly, such as recreationally and mixed with alcohol and marijuana, become a deadly concoction.

Can prescription drug abuse also lead to illicit drug use?
Definitely. Prescription drugs on the open market are about a dollar a milligram. It’s not uncommon for addicts to use eight to 10 80mg pills at $80 each to support their addiction. The move to smoking heroin is next on the chain because it’s actually cheaper for exactly the same high. The final step is injecting heroin. Many of these addicts turn to crime to help support their drug problem. So what we are looking at now is a population of young men and woman, highly addicted to opiates, many with criminal records, and on top of it Hepatitis C is on the rise from the use of needles.

Why is Orange County such a hotbed for the problem?
We thought initially that it was due to the fact that many parts of Orange County are upper middle class and in many situations it is true. Parents are working, the kids are on their own and have expendable income. Many are covered by insurance, which can pick up the cost of pain medication. So with the help of a dirty doctor, some cash for the prescription and either insurance or cash to the pharmacy, the sharing chain begins. Orange County has approximately 14 physicians under the microscope of the DEA.
 
What prescription drugs are the most abused and most dangerous?
OxyContin, Xanax, Opana, Soma, Klonopin, Adderall, Ritalin, Seroquel, and many more. Suboxone is given by many physicians to curb the cravings of opiates and get kids off drugs, but I recently heard from a recovering addict that it can be altered and injected.
 
How do kids get these drugs?
The easiest way is from our own medicine cabinets. Many people have prescription drugs right in their medicine cabinets. Adderall and Ritalin are often prescribed to kids for ADHD and the pills are widely sold and misused at school. Dirty doctors are also a big problem. There are doctors who write prescriptions for cash.

Do any get caught?
Dr. Lisa Tseng is sitting in jail awaiting trial for the deaths of three young men (one from Lake Forest). She allegedly wrote 27,000 prescriptions in three years. Dr. Yee from Mission Viejo was arrested in a Mission Viejo Starbucks, where he had a line of customers coming in nightly. He would take your blood pressure, have you touch your toes, then give him cash. You’d walk away with a prescription. He was making approximately $4,000 a night illegally prescribing addictive painkillers. As I said earlier, the DEA has 14 physicians under watch here in Orange County.

Do you think this is a national problem for America?
Yes. In 2010, 227 million prescriptions for opiates were prescribed. According to the CDC, that’s enough opiates to medicate every adult male and female around the clock for 30 days.
 
At what age should parents talk to their kids about the dangers of prescription drug abuse?
The age for experimentation with drugs and alcohol is between the ages of 12 and 15. So conversations need to happen earlier. If you don’t talk to your children about this issue, someone at school will. Many young men and women started because their brother or sister is doing it, or their friends are doing it. Almost all the people interviewed for the film started experimentation in middle school and at the age of 12.
 
How and why do the kids become addicted?
They are playing with opiates. Opiate addiction hijacks the brain. And tolerance happens quickly, so you need to take more drugs to achieve the same effect. Many opiate addicts have a fear of getting clean because the withdrawals are so painful. They choose to stay high versus get clean.

Why is it so easy to miss the signs of prescription drug abuse?
There is no “smell test” to prescription drug use. Many parents think their child is just being a “teenager” exhibiting typical teen behavior. Moodiness, loss of interest in activities and problems with academics are not uncommon in a teen’s life, but it can also be a sign that something’s up.
 
Kids often don’t call 911 or drop their overdosing friends at a hospital. Why?
Often there is no clarity of thought when a group is hanging out getting high. When a person starts to overdose, they panic. The first instinct is to run, because the police will come and arrest them. We have two important interviews in Behind the Orange Curtain about this. One is Vernon Porter, whose daughter Vanessa was placed in a room and had her cell phone turned off. They didn’t call 911 for 13 hours, after the party was over and they cleaned up the apartment. By that time, Vanessa was dead. Jim Kennedy’s son Joey was driven past several hospital and medical facilities and his body was dumped on the side of the road. Then they called 911. When the operator asked if they would be there, they hung up. The operator decided not to send anyone out on a “wild goose chase.” So the body wasn’t found until a woman found it and called 911.
 
Explain the Good Samaritan Law that just passed and will go into effect January 1, 2013, and why you support it.
The passing of this law took monumental efforts on behalf of parents who lost their children. This law states simply that if you are in trouble with either drugs or alcohol, a call placed to 911 will get you the help you need without fear of arrest or prosecution. Remember, when an opiate overdose is occurring and a first responder is on the scene, they can administer a drug called Naloxone (Narcan) and that will stop the overdose and allow the individual to be transported. That’s why it’s so important to allow people to call 911 without fear of prosecution. This law does not encourage bad behavior. It is here to save lives.

What’s the biggest misconception about prescription drug abuse?
That it “won’t happen to me!” I like to say that prescription drug use does not discriminate. It does not care if you live on Park Avenue or the park bench. You are not infallible. These drugs work and they will ruin your life if you take them on your own for other than the intended use.
 
What’s your goal/hope for the film?
I show up wherever I’m asked to do a screening. It is important to me that every parent watches this movie. Education and awareness are paramount to prevention.
 
Your film shows in many schools, right?
We screened for the Capistrano Unified School District, Huntington Beach Dwyer Middle School, and Mater Dei is coming up. We have two versions. The 87-minute full feature is perfect for family home viewing. I screen the 55-minute film at events and bring along a panel for Q&A sessions.
 
What steps can society take to address the problem?
We, as parents and citizens, need to demand that the state of California has in effect a real-time mandatory prescription drug monitoring program. This program would track a prescription from the time it left a physician’s pen to the time it was filled at the pharmacy. This would pinch the supply chain of drugs immediately. Dirty doctors would not be getting away with prescribing for cash. It is not uncommon for drug users to go from doctor to doctor to get their prescriptions (doctor shopping). This system would track it and put an end to that chain.

But California does have a drug monitoring program, CURES.
The CURES system is virtually bankrupt, manned by one civil servant and does not operate in real time. Many doctors are unaware of its existence and many do not use it at all. Dr. Tseng could not have written 27,000 prescriptions with a system like this in place. Currently Vernon Porter (who lost his daughter Vanessa) any I are attempting to speak with our local politicians to help spearhead this program in this state. Nationally, there is a plan for one but not until 2017, and they anticipate another 185,000 deaths by drugs until that system is in place. The longer we wait, the more lives we lose.



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