Suburban Nightmare: Opiates in Poway, California

“Parents think the disease of addiction is about them: what kind of parent they are, where they live, how much money they make. They see their kids with their hearts, not their eyes.”

opiate-caliPoway, California calls itself “the city in the country,” nestled inside low rolling hills that surround the warm weathered town. With fewer than 50,000 residents and a median household income of $96,000, it is a religiously curated suburban town, infamous among its residences for the book length of guidelines and rules that have to be followed when building or adding a structure. Even something as simple as a shed in a backyard can require half a year of red tape and expensive fees.

The word Poway is taken from the Diegueño and Luiseño Indians who lived in the area before the Spaniards encroached. The structures of Poway are built according to rules meant to keep an old-time feel to the buildings; the largest veterinarian building in Poway is styled as a farm and barn, blue with white edging. Horses chortle and sling hay in large, fenced backyards, a train runs through a sleepy loop in a local park where children flock all summer long for the cheap rides, Civil War reenactments take place on the stretches of grass that grow next to a quiet stream.

A few blocks down from that stream, on a nearby street, Jackie Thomas struggled in the middle of the night to keep her son Thomas alive. She had driven through the neighborhoods looking for him, and found his car pulled haphazardly to the side of the road. It was past midnight. When she jumped out and opened his door, David lay slumped over the steering wheel, unresponsive. Jackie pulled on him desperately, and David vomited. He was overdosing.

Between the years 2000 and 2007, seven people overdosed and died from opioids in Poway; in the next seven-year span, up until 2015, 24 died. Almost all were white and male, and many were young. Those are only the deaths from opioid overdose—not including those near-death, or those seriously brain injured.

Aaron Rubin was a Poway High football player who became addicted to opioids after treating his football injuries. After trying and dropping out of community college in Chico, Aaron started taking OxyContin. In 2004, Aaron returned home and told his parents that he had a drug problem. They didn’t ask what drugs, but immediately set him up with a psychologist and therapist, and his father began taking him to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Aaron’s mother, Sherrie, told me over the phone about Aaron’s original Poway supplier: the father of Aaron’s good friend, a Pop Warner coach who was an addict himself. Aaron, said Sherrie, “is of the first generation of kids to grow up with pharmaceutical ads. They had no perception of the harm.“

After eight months of sobriety, on October 9, 2005, Aaron took one, then two 160 milligram pills of time-released OxyContin—”Oxy”—at a friend’s home. He went to sleep, and had a heart attack and two strokes.

As Aaron lay in the hospital ICU, his friends approached Sherrie, wanting to understand why Aaron had overdosed. They were all using the same pills, weren’t they? Why did this happen?

After a year in a Pomona brain injury treatment center, Aaron came home. Quadriplegic, permanently in a wheelchair, he no longer can speak or care for himself. His mother, Sherrie, is his full-time caregiver. Sherrie formed theHope2Gether Foundation for the prevention of drug overdose. Sherrie and Aaron together visit Poway High (among other schools) once a year, and give a presentation on Aaron’s story.

Anthony Tafola started using opiates in Poway when a friend of his took a full bottle of 10 mg Norcos—60 pills—from his grandma. He and Anthony took the entire bottle over the course of a weekend. “In Poway the majority of supply was from kids who were taking it from their parents, who had surgeries, tooth surgery, diseases. A lot of kids in Poway have older parents who have this kind of stuff going on,” Anthony told me. When I asked about people noticing that the pills were gone, Anthony verbally shrugged. “I guess people just don’t notice.” Read more “the fix”…


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