ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

A County Awash in Drugs and Alcohol


I WAS KIND OF STUNNED WHEN I CAME UP HERE -- about three years ago from the Bay Area," Tom Antoon recalls. " I thought this was going to be a sleepy little backwater town. I was just blown out of my socks when I came up here and saw the extent and intensity of the problems around drugs and alcohol in this county. I kind of expected marijuana to be an issue, of course. Alcohol is much more of an issue than I anticipated, and methamphetamine is an incredible problem up here.

[photo of Tom Antoon]"When I was in the Bay Area," he adds, "I think one of the primary drugs of choice was crack, crack cocaine. But up here I'd have to say that methamphetamine and alcohol really are taking their toll."

Antoon, a youthful-looking 52, compact and stocky, with a small, neat mustache, is senior program manager of Humboldt County's Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Programs.

"We outstrip other like-size counties in drug and alcohol problems," noting of course that "outstripping" in this case is "kind of a sad commentary."

In 1997, for instance (latest figures available), there were 472 drug felony arrests, plus 463 drug misdemeanor arrests. Alcohol felony arrests came to 39, but alcohol misdemeanor arrests soared to 2,734. Those figures, noted the county's Public Health Department, were "very substantially higher than other rural counties."

And from that same report, consider the annual costs: For each adult or child in the county, $738; cost per user, $3,251; and total cost each year, $93 million.

Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson, whose court handles 180-200 cases a month, estimates that "at least 80-85 percent of all criminal cases involve drugs and alcohol to some degree."

[photo of Judge Watson]Tracing the evolvement of drugs over the decades, Watson says that in the '50s marijuana and heroin "were available in a small circle"; in the '60s, marijuana "became more prevalent"; in the '70s it was "marijuana and cocaine, along with alcohol"; and "all through this tobacco"; in the '80s, methamphetamine, heroin and alcohol along with a continuation of marijuana became the drugs of choice; and in the '90s, "what seems to have happened, cocaine has been replaced by methamphetamine." Judge Watson adds, "The glamor of coke has diminished. Methamphetamine picked up the slack, so to speak." (Obviously, a big part of that switch is the price differential.)

In Humboldt County the number of annual drug treatment admissions for methamphetamine users escalated from 61 in 1991 to 412 in 1997.

"That's a real big problem here," said Antoon, "partly because we're a rural county and labs can be built in areas that are not as accessible and discoverable by law enforcement. So we have a lot of difficulty with clandestine meth labs. There's a lot of manufacturing going on in this county, and of course a lot of sales and abuse as well."

Indeed, as Antoon notes, "Roughly 400 of the 800 drug program admissions in the county are for methamphetamine abuse or dependence."

Actually, trying to break out the numbers on types of drugs here is practically impossible, as District Attorney Terry Farmer concedes.

[photo of Terry Farmer]"The statistical mechanism of both the courts and our office are notoriously unreliable," he told the Journal, "because we have a bad system -- garbage in, garbage out. A lack of resources really puts this county, I think, statistically behind the eight ball and in the dark ages. That's because the court system is old, decrepit and unreliable. ... In an age where we have this belief that we can answer virtually any question by pressing a button, we think the technology is there to do that, (but) it's a whole lot less sophisticated than we would like it to be."

A couple of things he can tell you, though. Alcohol, for one, has always been a problem in the 26 years he's been in Humboldt County.

He relates, "A guy in the liquor business told me one time: `In good times, business was good, and in bad times business was better.'"

His "big kick today," as he puts it, is methamphetamine. "It's highly addictive, it's associated with violent, paranoid kinds of behaviors.

"This is not just a law enforcement-related phenomenon," he goes on. "People in the educational community, the business community, the health services -- they're having problems retaining qualified employees, keeping kids in school, because their parents are involved in methamphetamine, problems keeping families healthy and together.

"It's really kind of been an explosion in the last 10-15 years. We throw these phrases around like `the war on drugs,' and I think at least law enforcement was of the opinion for a while that we could solve this problem. Well, we can't solve it all by ourselves. Law enforcement is an important component in the battle, but only one part, and the parts that really need to be beefed up, I think, in this county are treatment and education."

Business people, too, are aware of the problem. Dave Edmonds, president of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, for example, says there's no question that drug and alcohol abuse is hurting the county's economy -- with employees showing up late for work, or not at all, and goofing-off on the job when they do.

Greg Foster, executive director of Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, says: "We're bombarded with it (the drug problem) constantly. Absenteeism and drug and alcohol abuse are closely related. Methamphetamine is particularly bad, because people will stay up for five-six days, and then they'll crash."

The commission, he says, has found "an incredible dropoff" between people being "interested" in a job and actually doing the work. A number of major businesses have gone to drug testing, primarily for safety reasons -- companies in construction, trucking or mill work, for example -- but they are finding, as Foster relates, that "60 percent (of job applicants) are dropping out because of the drug and alcohol issue; they either don't want to take the test, or they took it and didn't pass."

He adds, "We have companies who are saying their growth is restricted because of work force issues, and one of the big issues is drugs."

There are at least a dozen drug and alcohol recovery programs in the county today, and District Attorney Farmer pushes for even more.

"I think we don't have enough," he said, "and I would like to see more resources into increasing the capacity of our rehab programs. I think rehab works at least as well as any other effort that you're going to put into stopping people from using drugs. Not that it's an overwhelming success, but putting people in jail is not an overwhelming success either."

There is no easy quantifying of success rates of the assorted drug recovery services, detox centers or rehabilitation facilities.

As Tom Antoon likes to say: "Recovery is not about the old Nancy Reagan thing of `Just Say No.' It's not about drinking or using. It's about changing lifestyles, about making healthier choices of `How I'm going to live.' And like anything else, you need to be taught."

The drug and alcohol recovery program at Antoon's facility (at 2922 I Street in Eureka) presently has 75-100 people in treatment. They come in during the day for educational programs and group talks. They learn about nutrition, about relapse prevention, and how to socialize without using drugs. Their average age is from late 20s to mid-40s.

"They're not kids," said Antoon, "but almost all of them started during early childhood or early adolescence in their use or abuse of chemicals.

"You'd be amazed," he adds. "In the years that I've been doing this work (Antoon is a licensed attorney and psychotherapist, but finds little time for private practice on the side), it's not uncommon to hear about kids starting to drink and to use marijuana at the age of 6-7 years old."

And does he find that here? "Oh, you bet, you bet! Kids, they learn from their parents. ... They don't develop interpersonal skills, some don't develop much of a work ethic, they drop out of school ... and a lot of the folks we're dealing with wind up in the criminal justice system. So there's an awful lot of learning that goes into the treatment -- helping people to learn new life skills, change behaviors, change patterns of who you hang around with."

Then, too, they face "a lot of community-based resistance," as Antoon puts it, touching on a pet peeve of his.

"There's a lot of stigma around drug and alcohol addiction," he observes. "I think an awful lot of people look at it as some sign of moral weakness or a flaw in somebody's constitution, when in fact it's a medical disorder, a medical disease, just like diabetes or a heart condition. Really, it is a disorder, a biochemical disorder. For those who have chemical dependency, that indeed is a medical disorder. So many people are really afraid to have `those people' in their neighborhoods, as though it's a different class of people, and the fact is that it's not. It is regrettably a disorder that doesn't favor any socio-economic class over another; it's not gender-biased, it's not race-biased, it strikes anybody. It's a tragedy."

For Antoon, the big uplift comes when people graduate from the seven-month program.

"There's usually some sort of ritual," he explains, "and these folks bring their families with them. It's neat to see the kids or the wives, their husbands or partners, and they're just beaming! They got their daddy back or they got their wife back, and you can see how people's lives are repaired. It's gotta be the most moving experience that I have."

Michael Goldsby, program director of St. Joseph Family Recovery Services, runs a smaller group -- about eight to 12 people -- and his philosophy, not surprisingly, is quite similar to the county program.

[photo of Mike Goldsby]"Society has erroneously the idea that treatment is an easy out, that it is coddling people," he said. "Every program I'm familiar with requires a strong work ethic.

"Western people want to separate body, mind and spirit, like they don't have anything to do with each other, and a disease like alcoholism certainly shows how these things are connected. People's craving is a physiological craving. It's not like a bad habit or a poor choice. It is a true craving that people without an addiction cannot understand."

Goldsby, who also teaches a chemical dependency studies class at College of the Redwoods, manages a staff of about eight at the St. Joseph facility, including a medical doctor, a masters-level therapist, and a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Most of the costs are covered by private patient payment and insurance coverage of outpatients. The program is also subsidized by the St. Joseph Health System.

The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs disburses funds to the county alcohol/drug treatment program, amounting to about $2,250,000, and Tom Antoon says: "It's not enough, I can tell you that right out of the chute."

Some of that funding goes to other residential treatment programs, such as Crossroads, the Detox Center, and the Humboldt Recovery Center.

"Money is a problem," Antoon admits. "Attracting qualified, skillful substance abuse treatment professionals to the area is difficult. It's a fertile field (for them), but if you want to eat, it's not a very lucrative field, that's for sure. I admire not only the people who are in recovery and doing something to change their lives, but people who dedicate themselves to helping those folks.

"Treatment does work," he concludes. "You know, you throw enough mud at the walls, some of it's going to stick."

The people at Crossroads, a non-profit, therapeutic recovery community, are also busy throwing mud at the walls, so to speak. Besides their main treatment house at 1205 Myrtle Ave. in Eureka, where they have 28 beds, all presently occupied -- and with a long waiting list -- they also have four houses across the street (all paid for mainly with county funding) that are for people who are graduating from the 18-month program.

Gordon Costello, administrative director at Crossroads, which has been in existence since 1975, explains the "therapeutic community" by saying: "We're dealing with long-term issues -- of childhood physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, or maybe they grew up in a family of addicts, grief, loss of a child ... What we find is that people with substance abuse problems tend to take those issues to kind of hurt themselves, and they self-medicate and keep the addiction. If you can do something about helping them to come to at least a truce with the issues, the chance of recovery is greatly increased."

[photo of Abbe Hess and Gordon Costello of Crossroads]Crossroads also supports a group called CHOW -- for Community Health Outreach Workers -- who go into the county jail and pick out people who might have a chance of recovery outside, and put them in clean and sober living programs. They claim a 60 percent success rate for that effort.

Still, the addicts keep showing up at their door. Costello comments: "In this business, success is very relative. I remember hearing statistics years ago that if you had one out of 10 people who could successfully stay clean, even a year out, that you were doing well."

Or as Dr. Lawrence Badgley puts it: "Per capita, there seems to be greater illicit substance abuse (in the greater Eureka area) than in many places in California. The problem is rampant. It's out of control; something has to be done."

Badgley, a veteran practitioner in the drug wars, says that he has treated hundreds of addicts for methamphetamine and heroin. "For example," he says, "I have three-four people in hospital now with problems related to opiates (heroin). Not to say that the same people don't use methamphetamine...I think it's called the poor man's cocaine. You have to understand there's not a strict differential between these two groups. There's a large crossover."

A doctor who is already well noted in the Eureka medical community for a practice especially dedicated to the indigent -- a statement that is likely to make him snap, "Don't make me out a Mother Theresa!" -- Badgley is now getting ready to embark on a new approach to the drug and alcohol problem.

"Over time," he relates, "I've been interested in the use of herbs and nutrition and acupuncture for various medical problems, including the problem of addiction. So I'm currently organizing a group (of four or five alternative medicine practitioners besides himself), and we're going to put together a medical protocol that uses nutrition, vitamins, minerals, acupuncture and various herbs that might be effective for this problem. Counseling will also be a part of it.

"I've used acupuncture in past years to withdraw people from heroin. I've also used it for smoking, treated hundreds of people for smoking. And there are studies from treatment centers that use electro-acupuncture.

"The goal is to turn that system on when the person is withdrawing. And then you supply the body with the raw materials of a nutritional nature, which are needed to establish the correct balance of chemicals in the nervous system."

He hopes to be operational in the next couple of months.

"I'm not aware of anybody who has tried this," he says. "It's worth a shot. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Any shot would seem worth it, because the problem continues to escalate.

Abbe Hess, program director at Crossroads, where she has worked for the past 14 years, certainly knows that as well as anyone.

"We always have a waiting list," she says. "That's the big problem in Humboldt County. There's a bigger need than any of us can take care of. The problem's been around a long time. And treatment's where it's at."

 War on some drugs

They don't usually come under much critical public scrutiny in America's war on drugs, but the use -- and especially the abuse -- of some medications you pick up at your local pharmacy can also be dangerous to your health.

Andrew Sullivan, senior editor of the New Republic, in an article recently published by Santa Rosa's Press Democrat, notes, for example, that "a growing number of `medicinal' drugs also have a high `recreational' street value: painkillers such as Vicodin, downers such as Valium, uppers such as Ritalin and anesthetics such as ketamine."

Pointing up the contradictions, Sullivan writes that "you can get a dose of Xanax from your doctor and feel extremely mellow within half an hour, or you can take two puffs of pot and be a felon."

Or, again: "permitting addictive, destructive booze while banning nonaddictive, benign pot made no real sense."

In Sullivan's view, it is not, strictly speaking, a war on drugs, but a war on some drugs.

"And as the sophistication of pharmaceuticals develops exponentially each year," he predicts, "the lines we draw between legal and illegal, between stigmatized, will become more and more arbitrary."


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2001, North Coast Journal, Inc.