Teen's Tahoe Death Prompts Petaluma Parents Concerns about Prescription Drug Abuse

by Placerville Newswire / Mar 18, 2016 / comments

"It was in January 2013 that 19-year-old Casa Grande graduate Alyssa Byrne walked away from a music festival on a cold night in South Lake Tahoe, having ingested numerous synthetic drugs. A utility worker found her body outdoors three days later, and an autopsy found both hypothermia and drugs to have contributed to her death. The death shook close-knit Petaluma while laying bare the emotional stakes of drug use. Byrne had reportedly admitted to her parents two months earlier that she had been taking Adderall without a prescription, a legal drug used to treat attention deficit disorder."

[Casa Grande High School junior Jesse Pleinnikul speaks during the first meeting of Petaluma Parents Against Drugs on March 14, 2016 (Eric Gneckow/Argus-Courier) by ERIC GNECKOWARGUS-COURIER STAFF]

Sharply dressed and evoking a maturity and composure that belied his 16 years, Casa Grande High School junior Jesse Pleinnikul took to the podium Monday to discuss an evening he didn’t quite remember.

The first part was there — a heady mix of alcohol, marijuana and the prescription anxiety medication Xanax, all said to be up for grabs at a weekend party in late February. Yet how he ended up home in his bed that night, awoken by parents alerted from the unusual debris covering his parked car, was a mystery.

Speaking to a gathering of parents, students, law enforcement, school officials and others at Casa Grande High School, Pleinnikul acknowledged that the outcome of his experience could have been much worse.

“I put myself at risk of not waking up,” he said.

Framing his remorse in a teachable context, Pleinnikul’s anecdote launched the inaugural meeting of Petaluma Parents Against Drugs on Monday, a new group that organizers described as a grassroots effort to raise awareness — and perhaps prompt new initiatives — around the reported abuse of prescription medicine, drugs and alcohol by the city’s youth.

Spurred by her son’s experience, Kathleen Rose Stafford said she joined with fellow Petaluma parent Heather Elliott-Hudson to launch the effort out of concern that prescription drug abuse in particular was quietly growing in the city.

“We just decided, ‘You know what? We’re not going to wait until something happens. We’re going to take this on,’” said Rose Stafford.

The co-founders of the group noted that their effort was in the very early stages, and cited a positive early response as a sign that others shared their concerns.

“That’s our whole path right now, to start talking,” said Elliott-Hudson.

Abuse of prescription drugs, particularly high-potency opioid-type painkillers like oxycodone, has been a matter of growing concern across the entire country in recent years, according to information from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Such drugs are now attributable for more deaths nationally than heroin and cocaine combined, according to the Administration’s most recent National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.

Meanwhile, data from Petaluma schools and law enforcement indicate that cases involving drugs other than marijuana are still responsible for a relatively small percentage of documented cases of drug activity involving minors locally.

Of the 38 expulsions in the school year that ended in 2015, three were related to drugs other than marijuana, according to information from Petaluma City Schools, the city’s largest district. It was a similar story from law enforcement — non-marijuana drug cases constituted five of the city’s 35 drug-and-alcohol-related cases involving minors in 2015, according to data from the Petaluma Police Department.

Despite those relatively low numbers, young drug users in the city are still showing up in at least one reliable place on many weekends — the emergency room at Petaluma Valley Hospital. While the facility treats drug and alcohol incidents off all kinds, the stakes have gotten higher as users are mixing various drugs and alcohol with potentially deadly side effects, said Wendi Thomas, nursing director of critical care and emergency services at the hospital.

“Yes, it’s happening in Petaluma,” Thomas said. “Nobody is immune.”

As another testament to rising concern, the office of North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman on Wednesday announced that Petaluma Health Center would receive $325,000 to help support substance abuse services, part of a $1.3 million award of federal funding to health centers in his district. A full $94 million awarded nationally is aimed to combat opioid abuse in particular, according to the announcement.
 
A 10-year rise in marijuana use observed among students in Petaluma schools, troubling on its own, is seen as the possible bellwether of a trend toward harder drugs, said Dave Rose, director of student services for the school district. Marijuana was connected to nearly 60 percent of expulsions in the past two years, and more than half in four of the past five years.

That share has historically been in the single digits, Rose noted.

“With the popularity of marijuana and many of the relaxed attitudes, we are seeing our students have a more relaxed attitude toward not only marijuana, but other substances,” he said, welcoming an emerging partnership with the new group.

Rose said the district offers a number of programs in partnership with other organizations to educate students about the risks of drug abuse, ranging from the long-running Drug Abuse Resistance Education or “DARE” program, several trained staff counselors, on-site services from Petaluma Health Center clinics and referrals to services at the Petaluma People Services Center.

Drug risks are also a component of a life skills course for district freshman, Human Interactions.

Some among the roughly 50 people at the recent meeting questioned whether more effort was needed, including Barbara Evans, a Petaluma mother of two with students at both Casa Grande and Kenilworth Junior High.

“A lot of kids who don’t do drugs are frustrated that not enough is being done,” she said.

Reeling from the impact of the recent financial crisis, Petaluma eliminated the assignment of three full-time officers to area schools around seven years ago. Among those reassigned was Ed Esponda, a long-time officer who today patrols the area that includes Casa Grande High School.

While acknowledging the funding challenges that eliminated those roles, Esponda said he viewed his seven years assigned to Petaluma High School as effective in deterring drug use among students. He echoed others claiming that marijuana has grown in prominence in the years since, and that the drug can be a gateway to others.

“For me, it’s really frustrating,” he said. “It’s just sad seeing so many families destroyed over what drugs can do.”

It was in January 2013 that 19-year-old Casa Grande graduate Alyssa Byrne walked away from a music festival on a cold night in South Lake Tahoe, having ingested numerous synthetic drugs. A utility worker found her body outdoors three days later, and an autopsy found both hypothermia and drugs to have contributed to her death.

The death shook close-knit Petaluma while laying bare the emotional stakes of drug use. Byrne had reportedly admitted to her parents two months earlier that she had been taking Adderall without a prescription, a legal drug used to treat attention deficit disorder.

Speaking to the group gathered on Monday, Kevin Byrne, her father, said the devastating loss has prompted him to advocate for a number of best practices in the years since, including for parents to lock up their medications...

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