SAN DIEGO -- The country's top doctor has called opioid addiction a serious health crisis in American history with no signs of letting up. It's a disease affecting the rich, the poor, the old and the young.
Aaron Rubin, 34, is a man who knows all too well the horrors of prescription drug abuse. In 2005, he overdosed on OxyContin.
“When he was in Intensive Care Unit, we signed organ donation papers and just to give you an idea of how toxic and powerful the overdose was he experienced, none of his organs could be donated because they had been so destroyed by the overdose,” said his mom, Sherrie Rubin.
Aaron started casually taking muscle relaxers after high school football practice. Sherrie says she knew he occasionally drank alcohol but never had any indication he was popping prescription pain pills. In the early 2000’s, it wasn’t a conversation most families were having.
“At the time of Aaron’s overdose, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, was making 160 mg tablets. It was stronger than black tar heroin,” said Sherrie.
It wasn’t until several years later the FDA stepped in and demanded Purdue change its formula for OxyContin because it was being so widely abused.
Sherrie’s son almost died. He was in a coma for a month and had two heart attacks in the ICU. The brain damage was so severe, Aaron lost his ability to walk and talk. He is now a quadriplegic and communicates using his fingers. He holds up one finger for “yes” and two fingers for “no.”
When crushed and smoked, opioids are as strong as heroin. A typical pain pills goes for about $40 to $60 on the street. Heroin is closer to $5 a hit, and according the latest RX Drug Abuse Report Card from the county, a majority of heroin users admit they started with prescription pain pills.
“We`ve lost almost an entire generation because we had these deadly powerful prescription drugs in medicine cabinets across America and we had no idea,” said Sherrie.
FOX 5 first sat down with Sherrie and her son five years ago as they launched a county and country-wide speaking tour to teenagers. They’ve been all around the nation telling Aaron’s story and warning teenagers about the dangers of opioids. Sherrie also launched a nonprofit organization “Hope 2Gether” to raise awareness about the epidemic.
According to the San Diego County Medical Examiner, 2,500 people have died of an opioid overdose since 2005. The problem peaked in 2011 when 273 people died of an opioid overdose. In 2015, the latest full year of statistics available from the medical examiner, 263 people died.
Opioid addiction is a disease that knows no racial, social or economic boundaries, and it often starts in high school.
“I think we`re really good at hiding it,” said 18-year-old Chad Ramirez.
Ramirez agreed to talk to FOX 5 candidly about the problem at his high school, which he didn’t want to reveal.
He said he doesn't pop pills, but knows it happens in the hallways.
“Some people would fake symptoms at doctor’s offices and there’s people that will get bootleg pills to pass around, but just one person needs to have it,” he said.
Fewer San Diegans are dying from prescription drugs, but that doesn't mean that fewer people are using them.
In 2014, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department became the first agency in the county to carry Naloxone, the drug that reverses an overdose. Since then, it's saved 37 people, or 84 percent, of the addicts who were given the spray.
Other law enforcement agencies in San Diego, including the San Diego Police Department, are working on getting Naloxone because it’s been so successful at reducing opioid deaths.
“You’re in charge of your choices, but you’re not in charge of the consequences. We don’t get to pick our consequences,” Sherrie said. “I often ask Aaron, 'did you in a million years think that this would ever happen to you,' and he says 'no.'”