Jodi Barber and Christine Brant (far right and far left in the picture) of Laguna Niguel, Calif. are the brains behind “Overtaken,” a short documentary educating young adults on the truth about prescription drug addiction and the often deadly consequences pills have. Oxy Watchdog caught up with the two moms just ahead of the film’s release on Sept. 22.
Watchdog: How did you get involved in the issue of prescription drug addiction?
JB: This mission started 20 months ago when my 19-year-old son Jarrod died on Jan. 8, 2010 after overdosing on prescription pills. He had a quarter of an Opana pill he had bought from a kid he knew, and he crushed it, melted it, and inhaled the fumes. He also had drugs in his system from his own doctor – Seroquel, Cymbalta, and Klonopin.
CB: The most deadly of those was the Opana, and many kids don’t understand that when you break them in half or crush them or split them between friends, it removes the time-release coating and it’s all dumped into your system at one time.
W: How common is prescription drug abuse in your community? How many deaths have there been, and who is dying?
JB: Maybe I just wasn’t aware of the problem before Jarrod passed away, but after his death, it became a huge problem. His friend came home from the Army on a two-week leave to attend Jarrod’s funeral, relapsed while he was here, and died of a heroin overdose. The kid who sold Jarrod the Opana died about five months later, and 10 months later another close friend of Jarrod’s passed away. It’s to the point where these types of deaths are occurring on a monthly basis. It’s become an epidemic.
CB: Jodi was living every parent’s worst nightmare. I have four kids who by the grace of God have stayed away from using pills, but I was hearing about one after another after another passing away of these really strong opiate prescription drugs. My kids have gone to more funerals than I have. I knew immediately that there was something very wrong happening.
JB: It got to the point that I was speaking at the funerals of these kids, and kids were overdosing at the funerals. They just can’t stop. Jarrod had a friend who spoke at his service, and even with Jarrod dying he couldn’t stop using. He went into a rehab, came out for two weeks and overdosed and died.
W: With prescription painkillers being such a problem in your community, have you started to notice an increase in heroin addiction?
JB: Yes. These pills lead to heroin. The pills cost about $60-$70 per pill right now in this area, and so many kids have turned to black tar heroin, which is about $4 a balloon.
CB: When you think about people addicted to heroin, it used to be an inner-city type of thing. We live in an affluent beach community, and generally speaking, you didn’t see heroin addiction as a major problem. But it all starts with the pills. These kids end up needing more to get the same high as they did in the beginning, and it’s too expensive.
JB: It’s not so much that they need the high anymore, as they have these horrible cravings. I need my coffee every morning, and this is a hundred thousand times worse for these poor kids who crave pills, it’s so sad. And the doctors know how addicting these pills are.
W: Speaking of doctors, what role do you think they are playing in the rising rates of pill addiction?
JB: For a lot of these kids, it all starts with an injury in high school. The doctor starts them out on Vicodin and muscle relaxers, which is totally unnecessary. Jarrod went to his doctor for help; this doctor knew Jarrod had an addiction problem, and yet he gives him handfuls of Seroquel, which is a drug for psychotic people. Another father whose son went to this doctor pleaded with the doctor not to give any more pills to his son because his son was now an addict. The doctor said that because the son was over 18, there was nothing he could do. There are so many dirty doctors who are handing out pills, including Dr. Lisa Tseng, who I believe contributed to my son’s death because the boy Jarrod bought the Opana from went to her. She is directly responsible for the deaths of kids who have overdosed, and those who are addicts. I went right into her office and confronted her. She had written six scripts in one week’s time for one kid. I told her, “you’re the professional; these kids don’t have cancer.” The first thing in a doctor’s oath is do no harm. She was prescribing deadly combinations, and she knew that these kids coming to her weren’t terminally ill.
The other issue is the pharmacies here. I went to one after Jarrod passed away, and asked the pharmacist if he was filling Opana prescriptions for kids. He said yes, all the time, but don’t yell at me – yell at the doctor. But he has a choice to say no and not fill them; he knows what these pills are doing to these kids. It made me sick. It’s all about the money.
CB: That’s why awareness is so critical. If these doctors don’t care out of the goodness of ethics, maybe they will care that the press is getting wind of it, and that they might be exposed for their unethical behavior.
W: Tell us about the making of “Overtaken” and what your goals were in producing it.
CB: Jodi had made posters on the dangers of prescription drugs and put them up in the windows of places where kids hang out. When I saw them, I immediately felt like somebody was doing something, finally. Together we sat down and decided to spread awareness. Kids are dying, and we can’t just sit around and do nothing. We hired a media company and pulled together a group of kids whose lives have been destroyed by addiction. We shot all of the interviews in one day and edited it down to a 28-minute movie, which is the right timing for high school assemblies. The kids in the video talk about what they would do if they could go back, and how their choices dictated where their lives ended up. We hope that maybe some kid sitting in the audience will think twice after seeing the movie; maybe his or her life can be different.
W: What have been some of the effects of prescription drug abuse on parents and families? Are they in denial? Is there shame associated with it?
JB: Unfortunately, there is a lot of shame surrounding prescription drug addiction, and it’s been really hard to get moms to come out and talk about it. There’s one section in our city where there have been four overdose deaths in just a few blocks, and every one of those mothers is saying it was a health problem. But everyone knows these kids were all friends, and that these were overdoses. It is shameful, but you have to get beyond that and try to save a life. These are beautiful kids who don’t deserve to have their lives taken away. If the component of shame doesn’t change, this totally startling increase in drug overdose deaths will continue to rise.
CB: We need to stop and be honest and be real. Don’t say your kid died because he had an allergy to peanuts; everyone knows, and you’re not fooling anyone. Your daughter didn’t spend the semester with grandma; she was at rehab. Jodi opened up the discussion and put it on a poster. She gave out her phone number for people to call if they needed help, and her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Maybe she can save one mother from living the pain that she now lives every moment of every hour of every day. We need to stand together as a community. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? We need to stop worrying about what everybody’s thinking and support each other mother to mother, neighbor to neighbor, to stop this wildfire that is racing through our community.
The school board originally didn’t want to put up our posters for the film because they were too “distracting.” I think it’s a little more distracting for kids to have to attend the funerals of their peers. They just want everything to look good, but the fact is that of the 2008 graduating class from this school, eleven kids have died of overdoses. We’re not talking they got mixed up in drugs, or went to rehab, we’re talking dead. If those eleven kids died any other way, like they all got cancer, or got in a school bus accident, or contracted the swine flu, it would be on every news channel and in every paper. But nobody, not one person, has reported that they all overdosed and died. Overdose deaths have increased 147% since 2007, and Orange County is now number two in the nation for the highest number of unintentional fatal overdoses. Yet nobody’s really talking about it. This is an epidemic, and that’s not an over-estimation.
JB: It’s the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about until it happens to them. They think it’s the kid’s choice, but everyone makes wrong choices in life. These parents need to wake up and get help for their kids.
“Overtaken” premieres Thursday, Sept. 22 at 7pm in the Rancho Niguel Regency Theater. Learn more by visiting the movie’s Facebook page.