Under The Influence: Alcohol and Drugs

“He wasn’t a problem kid,” John Piacentini, whose son Nick passed away last year, said. “His death was a very tragic accident. I don’t think that he was doing anything the night he died that other kids on campus weren’t doing.”

Nick Piacentini, a second-year UCSB student, died on March 9, 2009 after experimenting with heroin and a number of other intoxicants.

Nick Piacentini

In the past 18 months, four other UCSB students died from drug and alcohol related incidents. In Winter Quarter, two students overdosed on heroin and nearly died.

“I’ve never seen a year like that,” I.V. Foot Patrol Lt. Olmstead said of the drug and alcohol related deaths in the 2008-09 school year. “They were normal, everyday, good people who made a mistake.”

Last spring, 1,000 UCSB students took a survey responding to questions about using intoxicants. According to the study, 79.4 percent had consumed alcohol in the past month. 13.5 percent had tried cocaine, 20.6 percent had used prescription drugs that they were not prescribed and 2.5 percent had tried opiates.

“A lot of students are happy with the party scene,” Olmstead said. “Students need to recognize that there is a problem.”

“You think it’s never going to happen to you.”

Just a week from graduating in 2009, Noah Krom headed downtown to celebrate with friends. According to investigative reports, later that night residents of 6663 Del Playa Dr. reported seeing a taxi driver in pursuit of Noah, who jumped their fence at the south end of the backyard. The driver left the scene after Noah hopped the barrier.

Noah Krom

Noah’s body was not found until the next morning.

The immediate cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma — Noah died minutes after hitting the ground — but reports also list “acute and chronic ethanol abuse” as a significant condition contributing to death.

Noah’s body was found with a “50 Club Isla Vista” shot glass. Toxicology reports show that his blood alcohol content was .257 at the time of his death.

“The crazy thing about Noah’s death is that if he’d jumped the fence six inches to the right, he’d still be here with us. It just so happened that he hopped a fence where the cliff receded,” John Lewis, one of Noah’s roommates, said.
“You think you’re safe because I.V. is a bubble. You think
it’s never going to happen to you.”

According to Lt. Olmstead, 2,200 individuals were cited for alcohol related offenses in the 2008-09 school year — an increase of 431 people from the 2007-08 school year. Furthermore, he noted that three to seven people fall from the nearby cliffs every year.

druggraphDr. Ian Kaminsky, director of the UCSB Drug and Alcohol Program, said about 80 percent of the students that Student Health counsels “got too drunk and threw up or fell and hurt themselves.”

The National Collegiate Health Assessment survey revealed that 26.6 percent of UCSB students said they had physically injured themselves while drunk in the past 12 months, and 44.8 percent said they had engaged in behavior they regretted while under the influence of alcohol.

Noah’s friend Alyson Kaye said Noah did not drink more than the average student.

“I’m sure people tend to think, ‘That would never happen to me because I don’t party as hard as that person,’” she said. “I don’t think Noah did anything to do this to himself. I don’t think he drank more than anybody else.”

Temporary Relief, Long-term Risks

Although alcohol is the most prevalent party drug, the NCHA showed that 11 percent of surveyed UCSB students had recreationally used a prescription painkiller and 13.7 percent experimented with prescription stimulants.

Sara Tahmassebi, a second-year student at UCSB, died in I.V. in May 2009 after ingesting a number of intoxicants. According to Sara’s friend and neighbor Hannah Jacobs, Sara partied regularly but never appeared out of control.

Sara Tahmassebi

“She had a smile and vibrance that followed her everywhere,” Jacobs, a third-year psychology major, said.

Sara went out on May 9 and, after spending time with friends and allegedly drinking and using cocaine, she broke off from the group.

“The last I saw her was at 10 at night,” Sara’s friend Taylor Suiter said. “By the end of the night, we’d lost track of her.”

When Sara arrived at her residence, she fell to her bedroom floor. Although a number of friends saw her on the ground, a coroner’s report stated, they assumed that she had simply passed out. She was not discovered to be dead until the next afternoon.

“Sara was known for sleeping in until crazy hours, like 1 or 2. She was known for sleeping in weird places, too,” Suiter said.

Authorities arrived and pronounced Sara dead at the scene. She was 21 years old.

Toxicology reports show that she had a blood alcohol level of 1.46 percent in addition to testing positive for anti-depressants and a muscle relaxant.

Kaminsky said while a small percentage of students misuse prescription drugs, the group that does engage in this behavior runs a huge risk.

“From my vantage point, I would say that it doesn’t have the numbers that other issues do. However, the potentiality is way up there,” he said.

According to clinical manager of the UCSB Alcohol and Drug Program Jackie Kurta, one of the most popular prescription drugs in the student community is Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication and muscle relaxant.

“There’s easier access all around to prescriptions,” Kurta noted. “[When there is an] increase of supply, there is a decrease of cost.”

Kurta said many students who use prescription medication recreationally are often dealing with underlying mental health issues such as stress, anxiety or depression.

“These are pain medications,” she said. “These medications temporarily relieve that pain and it’s another form of that pleasure response that people are looking for. But they’re not aware of the long-term risks.”

“It was a fluke thing and a perfect storm.”

While there has been a visible increase in the use of prescription medications on campus, Kurta noted that one of the most dangerous trends has been a rise in opiate use. The most common opiates abused in the student community are Vicodin and OxyContin.

Fourth-year sociology major Chad Andrew Briner was found dead on Sabado Tarde Road in front of the recliner where he had fallen asleep earlier in the night in September 2008.
According to investigative coroner’s reports, Chad became addicted to prescription medication after taking pills for surgery and an intestinal disease.

Chad Andrew Briner

Chad’s father, Rob Briner, said that his son was “on over
12 different prescribed medications” for a period of time, although most were not narcotic related.

“I think he found temporary refuge and happiness by way
of self medicating,” Briner said. “It was a fluke thing and a perfect storm. There were signs and symptoms leading up
to his demise. However, the people around him and available to him didn’t see it.”

According to the toxicology report, two OxyContin pills were found in Chad’s small intestine and traces of cocaine were found in his blood. The immediate cause of death is listed as “Oxycodone Intoxication.”

Chad was 21 years old.

In addition to prescription opiate abuse, Director of Student Health Dr. Elizabeth Downing said there has also been an increase in students experimenting with heroin.

“Black tar heroin is very readily available on the street and is currently quite inexpensive and very potent; many students seem to be ignorant of the very dangerous risks associated with heroin or other narcotic use due to a very narrow margin of safety,” Downing said in an e-mail.

Janet O’Neill, Cottage Health System’s director of public affairs, said the hospital staff has also seen a substantial increase in serious heroin abuse.

“What we’re seeing at Goleta Valley … is an increase in heroin,” O’Neill said. “It’s been noticeable.”

Two UCSB students, Nick Piacentini and Walker Jameson Price, passed away in the last two years after experimenting with heroin and other intoxicants. Price, a second-year global studies major, was found dead in his Summerland home in October 2008 after using heroin in combination with a number of prescription medications. The coroner’s report classified his death as accidental multiple drug ingestion.  He was 19 years old.

Walker Jameson Price

Kaminsky noted that there are a few factors that make heroin and other opiates more addictive than most drugs — one of which is purely biological.

“[Opiate receptors are] a natural occurrence in the body. Opiate receptors are in the brain as part of the pleasure center,” he said.

In addition to being highly addictive, heroin is easy to overdose on due to the varying potency of different batches, especially when combined with other drugs.

What’s next?

According to Associate Dean of Students Deborah Fleming, the university took action after last year’s deaths in part by establishing the “Just Call” campaign, which encourages students to call for help if their friends show signs of distress while partying.

The C.A.S.E. Program has also adapted some of its material to fit changing needs and the Drug and Alcohol program has established more offices in Embarcadero Hall. The I.V. Foot Patrol installed a prescription drug “drop-off” box where expired or unused drugs can be dropped off anonymously and disposed of environmentally.

Despite community efforts to prevent future tragedies, Rob Briner said that much more needs to be done.

“What’s happening in I.V. is unacceptable and until we all stand tall … Nothing substantial will happen,” he said.

UCSB Health Educator Michael Takahara said that a contributing factor to the extreme party culture in I.V. is the social norms theory — the perception that “everyone else is doing it.”

The National Collegiate Health Assessment showed a huge discrepancy between the number of UCSB students who actually engage in habitual drug experimentation and the perceptions of student use.

“[When] perceptions are wrong and exaggerated, people will be influenced by their false perceptions, not facts. Therefore, one strategy is to clear up misperceptions with actual use so people will not be falsely influenced,” Takahara said.

Sara’s friend Taylor Suiter, who now serves as a Students Teaching Alcohol and Drug Responsibility intern, said friends also need to take responsibility for each other.

“If I have a friend who appears to be in distress, I have no problem picking up the phone,” Suiter said. “I’d rather have a friend in trouble than a friend who’s dead.”

In addition, Fleming expressed a need for more property owners and local alcohol retailers to interact with students responsibly.

“Who’s benefiting from all of this partying and alcohol use? There’s a whole industry downtown,” she said. “Property owners on Del Playa get very high rent. There are lots of people in one unit and there’s a wink-wink nod-nod about partying in the apartment about damages. Shouldn’t property owners take more responsibility for what goes on on their properties?”

Beth Krom, Noah’s mother, said a strong effort on all fronts is the only real way to prevent future fatalities in I.V.

“Only through the concerted efforts of all stakeholders — the university, public policy leaders, public safety and those who profit by the student population such as property owners and those who run the bars and restaurants students patronize — can a positive change in the UCSB/Isla Vista culture be advanced,” she said in an e-mail.

John Piacentini said he hopes students learn from last year’s tragedies.

“You really need to be careful and you really need to know your limits and you really need to be aware of the people around you,” he said. “There’s nothing that you can imagine like losing a son or a brother or a best friend.”