Not on his watch

Outspoken Willows man is on a mission to warn students about the deadly consequences of prescription-drug abuse

Activist Jim Bettencourt has been working for about a decade to stop meth use in Glenn County. These days, he’s determined to help educate Chicoans, especially college-age people, about the dangers of prescription-drug abuse.

Activist Jim Bettencourt has been working for about a decade to stop meth use in Glenn County. These days, he’s determined to help educate Chicoans, especially college-age people, about the dangers of prescription-drug abuse.

Photo By Tina Flynn

Prescription Drug Abuse Forum:
Wednesday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m., in the Bell Memorial Union on the Chico State campus.

Jim Bettencourt toted a fireproof safe into a recent interview. Shortly into the conversation, he unlocked the box to reveal what appeared to be two large bottles of prescription cough syrup.

The names of the patient and doctor had been peeled off the 16-ounce bottles, but the medicine within was denoted clearly on the label: oxycodone.

“They call it hillbilly heroin,” said Bettencourt, referring to the slang term used by abusers of the liquid painkiller.

Bettencourt explained that the bottles were on loan from a friend who had undergone gastric-bypass surgery. He will be using the containers—still nearly full of the powerful controlled substance—during an upcoming prescription-drug-awareness forum at Chico State to illustrate the over-prescription of narcotics.

In this case, a physician prescribed the drug as a post-surgery pain reliever. The patient needed only a couple of doses, however, and was left with two nearly full bottles. At first, it seemed a bit odd that Bettencourt carried the narcotic in a locked container, but it made sense after determining the black-market price of the drug.

Based on info from multiple substance-abuse organizations, such as the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, a conservative estimate of the street value of this particular dosage is $2,250 per bottle.

The accessibility of oxycodone—and other highly addictive prescription drugs—will be one of the topics during the forum, on Wednesday (Sept. 22). The event is presented by Not in Our Town–Glenn County, a Willows-based nonprofit substance-abuse prevention coalition founded by Bettencourt and other concerned citizens nearly a decade ago.

It’s the culmination of months’ worth of work by the Willows landscape contractor, who used to concentrate his prevention efforts on street drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin but in recent years has been following the rise of prescription-drug addiction. “It’s an issue that, if not addressed, is going to get worse,” he said.

His concerns go back several years, when he began meticulously compiling information about fatal drug overdoses of Chico State students. Kyle Bartley is the first on his list. The senior business major was 22 years old when he passed away in August 2006 from what toxicology tests determined to be a deadly mixture of cocaine, a sleeping pill and oxycodone. Over the past four years, six Chico State students (one whom dropped out of school the semester before his death) have died after recreational use of a combination of drugs that included prescription meds.

Bettencourt is convinced that many college-age people simply don’t know about the risks.

“There are students who are completely ignorant about prescription drugs and use them every day, and share them with friends,” he said.

Bettencourt has extensive experience working with groups interested in learning about the dangers of drug addiction. He’s spoken to folks in dozens of organizations and institutions, including thousands of school children in Glenn County. About two years ago, he began offering his insights to Chicoans at the so-called Town and Gown meetings, which bring together university, city and law enforcement officials, along with students and other community leaders.

This reporter attended a couple of those gatherings last winter, including one in January during which Bettencourt was repeatedly interrupted as he attempted to lobby for prescription-drug-awareness education for students. He mentioned the possibility of being able to acquire already-produced public-service announcements, but received little feedback on that front.

Instead, the anti-drug advocate was treated to thinly veiled hostility from several participants, as well as defensive posturing from an official from the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center (CADEC), Theresa Fagouri, who took his suggestion as an insult to the program.

Bettencourt excused himself from the meeting when the group moved on to discussing safety lighting in student neighborhoods. It was immediately thereafter that Fagouri told the remaining panel that the campus organization was working on an OxyContin campaign. “I just feel like I didn’t need to explain that in front of Jim,” she said.

CADEC did sponsor a prescription-drug forum about two months later to a standing-room-only crowd in an oversized classroom in the Bell Memorial Union. District Attorney Mike Ramsey was among the handful of speakers who addressed the 100 or so attendees. Ramsey didn’t mince words, noting that Chico, and Chico State in particular, does have a drug problem. He equated the mixing of prescription drugs (with other narcotics and alcohol) with Russian roulette.

He said that a deadly combination can occur at any time—even after a history of the same risky behavior. “Once that bullet comes in line with a barrel, your life is over,” Ramsey said.

By far, the most powerful speaker during that forum was a Chico State student who had grappled with a serious addiction to painkillers.

Anthony Lombardi, a former high-school athlete and valedictorian, started taking vicodin for back pain. His tolerance grew, leading him to strong drugs, such as Norco and Percocet. “When I stopped taking vicodin, I was literally taking 30 pills at a time,” he recalled.

Eventually, Lombardi began taking OxyContin. The drug consumed his thoughts; his life revolved around getting his hands on it. He paid local doctors cash for prescriptions. It took a near-death experience—after he shot up the drug—for the Chico State student to seek help.

“There’s no reverse,” he said. “You climb that ladder until you hit rock bottom.”

Bettencourt would like to help keep others in the community from making the same mistake. To that end, he’s brought in a couple of heavy hitters as speakers for the upcoming forum.

Susan Foster is the vice president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, and a principal investigator in the agency’s 2005 groundbreaking report, Under the Counter: The Diversion and Abuse of Controlled Prescription Drugs in the U.S., that shed light on the crisis of prescription-drug abuse in United States. The study found that the number of people abusing prescription meds skyrocketed 94 percent between 1992 and 2003. Moreover, during the same timeframe, the number of 12- to 17-year-olds abusing these drugs rose 212 percent.

Bettencourt is determined to address the issue from many directions. One of the keys to ending abuse is to make the drugs less accessible to abusers. Dr. Lee Thomas Snook, a Sacramento-area physician specializing in pain medicine who has first-hand experience with addicts, will also be speaking at the forum.

“He understands the magnitude of the problem,” Bettencourt said. “He’s been manipulated before, and so he’s focused on not letting that happen.”

The law-enforcement perspective will also be covered at the forum by two agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Bettencourt’s goal is to help organize a regional collaboration of various stakeholders to address the gaps in the education, medical and law-enforcement communities related to the prescription-drug-abuse epidemic.

Bettencourt is not affiliated in any official way with the university. The effort by his group, which is paying full price to rent the BMU auditorium, is supported by private donations and some grant funding. He won’t make a dime.

The driving force behind his effort came about a decade ago when his then-15-year-old son came close to dying from the effects of methamphetamine. Bettencourt recalled seeing his son hooked to life support, and watching as he narrowly pulled through after suffering from multiple grand-mal seizures. He sought treatment for his son, who went on to graduate from Chico State and is now pursuing a graduate degree.

“I could’ve been the most shame-ridden parent in the community,” said Bettencourt, noting that everyone in Willows knows him. “I could’ve ignored it, but I didn’t. I tackled it head on.”