Ten years ago, Benjamin Florsheim shot up heroin in the back of a friend’s car in a dark parking lot on the West Shore. The then-21-year-old blacked out immediately. He was pulled out of the car by his friend who poured water on him. Eventually Placer County Sheriff’s officers arrived and used a drug called Narcan to save him. Florsheim had overdosed, but he wasn’t grateful.
“I was almost angry that they broke my high. I was yelling at them; it was crazy,” Florsheim said of the officers. “I was yelling at the guys who saved my life.”
He recalled that after he was released from Tahoe Forest Hospital that night, he walked through the Truckee mousehole soaking wet wearing heart monitor stickers. He calls the next day his first day of sobriety.
“I hit a bottom that was tangible. I had to hit a level of desperation,” said Florsheim, who had been using drugs since he was 14. “I had to do something different. I didn’t know if I could live through another relapse.”
‘NO ONE TALKS ABOUT IT’
River Coyote knows all too well the cautionary tale of addicts like Florsheim. As project manager of the Tahoe Truckee Future Without Drug Dependence (FWDD) program, she comes into contact with many families who are struggling to keep their loved ones off drugs and alcohol. She even keeps the funeral program of a local teen who struggled with addiction and committed suicide taped up in her Carnelian Bay office as a reminder of the work she’s doing and the importance of prevention.
“The sad thing about drug addiction is that no one talks about it,” said Coyote, who has heard stories of local teens falling into fires, flipping their cars, getting sexually assaulted, committing suicide, and overdosing, all while on drugs. But these conversations happen behind closed doors, and not as part of a broader community discussion.
She said the nature of living in a small community like Truckee/North Lake Tahoe is that people don’t want to talk about their friends or other families for fear of embarrassing them. But, the silence gives a false sense that there isn’t a problem.
“Deaths [due to drugs] happen all the time. No one talks about it. Most of those don’t make it to the [local] paper; you hear about it, but don’t read about it,” Coyote said of stories she hears locally. “There’s a lot of pain and hidden pain.”
And while different people have their specific drug preference, opioids especially have taken hold in the Truckee/North Tahoe community, according to those interviewed for this article. This includes both illegal and prescription drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and many others.”
While there are not specific stats for Tahoe, there were 18 opioid overdose deaths in Placer County in 2017, according to the California Department of Public Health. Nationwide, drug overdoses were responsible for more than 700,000 American deaths in 2017, which is a record according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Overdose deaths are higher than deaths from HIV, car crashes, or gun violence at their peaks,” The New York Times reported Nov. 29. “The recent increases in drug overdose deaths have been so steep that they have contributed to reductions in the country’s life expectancy over the last three years, a pattern unprecedented since World War II.”
These staggering numbers signal a need for change — not just nationwide — but locally as well.
‘IT IS AN EPIDEMIC’
Placer County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Dave Hunt said he has seen a progression in drugs that people prefer over the last 25 years he has worked in Tahoe — from cocaine to meth to heroin. He contends that Tahoe is not immune to the opioid crisis that the nation is currently experiencing.
“There is a drug problem everywhere. Every town. Every neighborhood,” Hunt said. “It is a social problem that involves every walk of life. It is an epidemic. It has increased over the years.”
Hunt points to the increase in the number of thefts and burglaries he has seen over the years, stating that addicts will do what they can to get money for their next fix. He has also seen a rise in people selling stolen goods to pawn shops and an uptick in the scrap gold metal market. Additionally, there have been cases of prescription drugs being stolen from homes, which are then sold on the street.
“They are trying to get to the next high, to the next high, to the next high,” Hunt said of addicts who are committing property crimes. “They will do what they can.”
He said his deputies come across addicts mostly during traffic stops, finding pipes or drugs left out in the open. They are then cited with a drug charge.
“People on drugs are paranoid, but they are kind of sloppy,” Hunt said. “They will leave it in plain view.”
There has steadily been an increase in drug-related offenses over the past five years, according to numbers provided by the Placer County Sheriff’s office. This year, there have already been 34 drug-related arrests and citations by the sheriff’s office in Tahoe, compared with 30 in 2017. In 2016, there were 25; in 2015, there were 23; and in 2014, there were 24. These numbers point to a growing problem overall.
A notable change Hunt has seen in the past five years is what he calls a “revolving door” of offenders. He sees the same names on reports come across his desk time and time again.
“You are seeing more drug users that are repeat offenders,” Hunt said. “They aren’t bad people, they are just hooked on drugs.”
The change, he said, is due to revisions in California law over the last few years. He points specifically to Proposition 47, a referendum passed by California voters in 2014, which reduced some felonies to misdemeanors, including drug crimes. Before the proposition was passed, those in possession of certain drugs went to jail, but now they are given a citation and sent on their way, Hunt said. He noted that this caused more addicts to be on the streets.
“Many times, you can get more time for a DUI than drug use,” Hunt said. “Possession of cocaine is no longer a felony.”
He also noted that California Assembly Bill 109, which was passed by voters in 2011, diverted people from state prisons to local jails, which Hunt said turned county jails into “mini prisons.” Because local jails became crowded, more offenders were released. That helped cause the cycle of repeat offenders, he said.
Hunt does contend that beating drug addiction is not easy. He referenced a local 60-something-year-old male who has been an addict since the Vietnam War, noting that drug addicts “span the ages.” He has seen several local people go through addiction programs multiple times.
“Some of these people were good people at one time and they just got on the wrong track,” Hunt said. “When addiction is there, it’s tough.”
‘A CHRONIC ILLNESS’
The 2017 Community Health Needs Assessment, conducted by the Tahoe Forest Health System, supports the anecdotes from Coyote and Hunt. The survey, which has been conducted in Tahoe/Truckee every three years since 2011, showed that 34 percent of respondents had used some sort of substance in the past year. It also showed 3.4 percent had reported using illegal drugs in the past year. Numbers were not available for previous years.
“One in four residents had a binge drinking episode in the month prior to the survey and nearly one in three has some substance use,” the Tahoe Forest Community Health Needs Assessment Summary Report published in January 2018 stated. “More troubling are the rates of binge drinking, specifically, and substance abuse more generally.”
Additionally, focus groups were held to gain more insight into the issues facing residents.
“Focus group participants commonly expressed concerns around mental health, substance abuse, being disconnected from the community, and the high cost of living and its impact on health in terms of affordable housing, food/nutrition, and health care,” the summary report noted.
These statistics and information prompted Tahoe Forest Health System to take action and to increase programs, helping their constituents with addiction and prevention.
“Tahoe Forest has made a commitment to helping our community through our greatest needs, including substance use disorder and mental illness,” said director of Tahoe Forest Hospital’s new Medication Assisted Treatment Program Eileen Knudson. “We are treating this as a chronic illness.”
Tahoe Forest Hospital’s Medication Assisted Treatment began the end of October in Truckee thanks to a two-year grant from Aegis Treatment Centers, which will provide resources for uninsured and underinsured patients. While a program like this typically costs $300 a month, the grant allows the hospital to offer it for free to these patients. The program helps opioid addicts by giving them Suboxone, which “is a medication that can help people who are dependent or addicted to opioid drugs. It may also help with chronic pain,” according to the hospital’s Suboxone induction protocol.
Patients take the Suboxone every day, which reverses the opioid withdrawal effects and helps them get off the drugs. In addition to taking the medication and meeting with a nurse once a week, those in the program are required to go through a counseling program. Knudsen calls it a “two prong approach.” The average length of time a patient is in the program varies from six months to a year, though some may need it for a lifetime. The MAT program is individualized to each patient.
“Recovery takes time,” Knudsen said. “Your substance use disorder didn’t happen overnight. It takes some time.”
Tahoe Forest’s program has approximately 15 patients, and there is currently a two-week wait list to get in. Incline Village also has a MAT program, and Western Sierra Medical Clinic in Kings Beach started its own this summer.
“With the introduction of the medication assisted treatment (MAT) program, we are able to offer treatments that have been shown to save lives and reunite families,” said Seson Khan, a family nurse practitioner, in a Western Sierra Medical Clinic statement release this summer.
‘THERE’S A CHANCE’
Coyote, who is also a Placer County health educator in Tahoe, wants to break down the stigma of drug addiction and bring awareness to the problem so more people feel safe to seek help. She focuses on awareness and prevention, and wants the community to start talking openly about addiction.
“A diagnosis of substance use disorder is chronic and is usually a long and difficult road to recovery,” Coyote said. “Catching it early and getting services is helpful.”
FWDD recently received a $20,000 grant from Aegis Treatment Centers, which is the largest drug treatment center in California. The grant will put up to 100 Naloxone nasal spray kits into the hands of the Tahoe/Truckee community, which could save a life, as the drug can reverse an opiate overdose. Naloxone is the generic form of Narcan, the drug used to save Florsheim’s life during his overdose. Two training sessions were held earlier this month in Truckee and Kings Beach to teach the public on how to use the kits, with more sessions to come.
Naloxone typically costs $80 a kit, but the grant allows FWDD to provide them to the community for free. Coyote believes having the kits out in the community can save lives.
“As long as they are still breathing and alive, there’s a chance,” Coyote said.
Truckee resident Shae Loveless, a registered nurse and mother of three, attended FWDD’s Naxolone training because she wanted to be informed and to receive a kit to have on hand. With two teenagers at Truckee High School, she said she is well-aware of the drug problem locally. She thinks it is beneficial to have Naloxone kits available to the public.
“It’s nice you don’t have to wait for a first responder,” Loveless said of having the Naloxone, adding that she is going to include it in the first aid kit she keeps in her car. “It enables people to make a difference.”
Other prevention measures FWDD promotes include the prescription take back events, which occur twice a year in Truckee/North Tahoe. The nationwide program allows community members to drop off prescription drugs at certain locations; the pills are then incinerated.
Since 2010, when the take back events began locally, FWDD has collected 1.6 tons of medications in Tahoe/Truckee. Of those 1.6 tons, 10 percent have been opioids, Coyote noted.
She points to the importance of prevention and awareness surrounding the opioid crisis and drug addiction in general. Coyote also encourages those who are addicts to seek help.
“It’s not that people don’t want to get better,” she said. “It’s just that it’s really hard when you are in that state.”
‘POTENTIAL TO BE RIGHT BACK’
Former addict Florsheim fully understands the difficulty of getting and staying clean. Since that fateful night in 2008, the Tahoe City native joined a recovery program, got sober, started a recovery and prevention program on the University of Nevada Reno campus, and graduated in 2012 with a BA in general studies, and minor in communications and addiction treatment. Florsheim has spoken about his addiction to drugs and alcohol at UNR, Incline High School, and his alma mater North Tahoe High School.
“Anyone and everyone can cross that line into addiction,” he said. “But, there is a way out.”
The 31-year-old now lives in Reno, has a committed and supportive girlfriend, and is a lifestyle coach who focuses on healthy living and fitness. Although he can be viewed in every way as a recovery success story, Florsheim cautions that addiction can hit anyone at any time and that he still needs support.
“I don’t wake up and think about drugs every day like I used to,” Florsheim said. “[But] I still feel like I have the potential to be right back where I was.”