Opioid addiction hits the heart of Orange County

  • (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
    The Solace Foundation talks to event attendees about the dangers of opioid use, providing information about their support group that meets every Wednesday in Mission Viejo. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
  • (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
    Attendees at "Problems and Solutions" watch a short film at the Laguna Hills Community Center prior to the guest speakers taking the podium. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
  • (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
    A clip from the film "The Long Way Back" showing the news headline from the artist Prince's death from an opioid overdose. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
  • (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
    Tacos were catered at the Laguna Hills Community Center for the "Problems and Solutions" event. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
  • (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
    "The Long Way Back" was screened for an audience at the Laguna Hills Community Center at the start of the "Problems and Solutions" event. (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
  • (Adam Gilles/Lariat)
    (Adam Gilles/Lariat)

Story By: Adam Gilles and Austin Weatherman

Margie Fleitman awoke June 10, 2010, thinking she was going to take her son Mitchell, 22, to rehab. The former Saddleback College automotive tech student struggled with opioid use for some time, realizing he wanted to shake drugs and get his life back in order. Fleitman found her son dead in his room from an accidental overdose the previous evening.

Fleitman said her son wanted to use heroin one more time before getting clean. The death of her son devastated the Fleitman family, but she did not let Mitchell’s passing control how she was going to live the rest of her life. Following her son’s death, Fleitman co-founded the Solace Foundation, a support group for families and individuals struggling with the effects of drug addiction.

“Through my loss and grief, I just tried to survive it somehow. So I started reaching out to other families who have had this happen to them to prevent other overdoses,” Fleitman said. “I co-founded this support group that meets every Wednesday. We support families who have lost a loved one and those who are struggling with it.”

The Solace Foundation joined the anti-opioid conference “Problems and Solutions” at the Laguna Hills Community Center Thursday, Nov. 30. Event sponsors Strength in Support and Pacific Solstice hosted several speakers, including Jim Nowell, father of deceased Sublime guitarist and lead singer Bradley Nowell, as well as providing booths to various organizations aiming to end the opioid crisis.

Purdue Pharma first introduced OxyContin to the general public in 1996 It made $45 million in sales its first year of business. The drug was often given to individuals in hospice, aiding people with chronic pain.  in 2000 the Department of Veterans Affairs adopted the drug as a way to treat soldiers returning from foreign deployment.

The Nowell Family Foundation was part of the group organizing the event. Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in 1996. “The Long Way Back,” a film about Sublime’s influence during the early stages of the opioid epidemic, was screened at the event. The film portrayed the glamorization of drug use in the music industry.

“If all people ever hear about is the glamorous side of drug use and addiction then they’re going to want to be a part of that,” Nowell’s sister Kellie said. “For some people, it just grabs a hold and doesn’t let go, and that’s a huge waste, whether it’s somebody who is a librarian or somebody who is a multi-platinum musician. That’s what we’re trying to help.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ 2017 statistics, almost half of all people incarcerated in federal prisons were convicted for drug offenses. African Americans account for 50 percent of State and local prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. African American youth are also 10 times as likely to be arrested for drug crimes as white youth despite a 2011 report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that whites are more likely to abuse drugs.

Retired police Lt. Cmdr. Diane Goldstein with Law Enforcement Action Partnership would like the US government to adopt a drug policy similar to the country of Portugal, which decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. While the drugs themselves are still illegal, Portugal treats drug possession and drug use in small quantities as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue. Since adopting these measures 13 years ago, Portugal reduced the number of adult drug overdose deaths to 3 for every 1,000,000 citizens in 2015.  

“We’ve known for years what the cure for drug abuse is: public health strategies,” Goldstein said. “Simply from an economic standpoint, we know that the drug war is a failure, and so the trillions of dollars and the millions of people that we’ve arrested and criminalized has done little to stop the flow of drugs in our communities.”

Goldstein advocates for addicts who receive drugs on a prescription basis and use the drugs in monitored facilities. She gave her thoughts on claims that decriminalization and monitored use would turn the U.S. government into a bunch of drug dealers.

“We’re already drug dealers at this point,” Goldstein said. “Let’s just take a look at the history of the CIA, or even the DEA. I mean, our country, in attempting to stop drugs from coming into our country, has in fact collaborated with horrific cartels in order to flip them. They’ve allowed certain cartels to freely bring drugs in so that they could get information in order to arrest other people. Our government’s hands are not clean on this issue.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose death rates nearly tripled from 1999-2014, but one antidote on the market can bring down the number of casualties.

Fleitman is a certified Naloxone trainer. She teaches individuals how to administer Naloxone, a medication designed to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. The Solace Foundation has helped 600-700 families according to Fleitman. Before creating the foundation, she visited several support groups for families that have lost a child.

Despite being surrounded by others that understand the feeling of loss, Fleitman said she felt like people judged her son for using drugs. She said her support group in Mission Viejo is past the stigma and ready to solve problems.

“They realize that there are people living in their own neighborhoods that are struggling with this too and they realize that instead of hiding, they can come out, become empowered, learn from others and support each other,” Fleitman said. “As long as there’s breath, there’s hope.”

Fewsmith dealt with opioid addiction in the 1970s while living in New York. Fewsmith said he has been clean and sober for 27 years and that many individuals at that time were driven to hard drugs by past traumas or victims of sexual abuse.

“I was a victim of sexual abuse, and like many people who suffered such an event, I had PTSD. I learned to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol,” Fewsmith said. “That quickly escalated. I found myself addicted to opioids. That was a long and horrifying time of hopelessness and self-shame. The thing that I did to stay alive is the same thing that turned against me.”

Fewsmith has practiced psychotherapy in the Mission Viejo area for the past 20 years. One of Fewsmith’s first experiences Fewsmith of the worsening opioid crisis occurred when two of his teenage patients said they were using drugs with their friends. The students told Fewsmith they had used Oxycontin and that the group they were in used it as well.

Nearly 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015 according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. In comparison, 58,000 military personnel died in the Vietnam War. Fewsmith is optimistic about helping individuals who struggle with addiction and says that addiction is curable.

“Addiction is a terrible and dangerous disease,” Fewsmith said. “But as serious as it is, it is completely treatable. So if anyone is suffering from addiction or knows someone who is, please seek professional assistance. Be careful where you seek it from — there are a lot of bad players in this industry, but there are a lot of competent mental health professionals that want to get you the help you need.”

For Tom Buckley, director of business development and community relations for Pacific Solstice and Community Outreach for Strength in Support, the evening’s message hit close to home.

“I was born into addiction,” Buckley said. “My dad died when I was in fifth grade from an overdose. My brother killed himself a year later from mental illness and then I, in my teens, started my own journey of addiction.”

Buckley said becoming a social worker and drug and alcohol counselor has been his calling since kicking his own drug addiction 13 years ago. He believes that time is of the essence in the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts.

“I lost my father and I lost my best friend and my brothers currently on the street, so when someone has the motivation to get help, you have to strike, you have to get them help immediately,” Buckley said. “I’ve seen more real treatment happen in skid row and in jail than anywhere else.”

Buckley spent a decade in LA county and skid row working as a social worker. He also worked three years as a drug and alcohol counselor in the LA county jails. Buckley believes that addicts who are the most down on their luck are the easiest to connect with and treat.

“The inmates were so thankful to have someone who was willing to talk about the root of their issues and 90 percent of those guys were just like you and I and just had horrible, horrible luck and were born on the shitty end of the stick,” Buckley said. “A lot of those guys just have poor, poor environments and just not a chance in the world, and they wanted anyone to connect with, anyone, and that’s what a big part of that was, was a connection, making them feel human.”