Pot legalization, drug problems among seniors worry Whatcom County addiction experts


BELLINGHAM - A growing opiate-addiction problem, drug and alcohol abuse in seniors and the looming availability of legal marijuana in Washington concern local experts on addiction.

The Wednesday, June 25, meeting of Bellingham City Club on the topic of addiction came just after the state announced retail marijuana stores likely will open starting July 8.

The Catholic Community Services Recovery Center sees about 1,000 kids and adults per year with drug and alcohol problems, said speaker Lex Rivers, the center's regional manager,

Rivers said the youngest client he ever had with a drug problem was 9 years old; the oldest was in his 70s.

"There are all kinds of pathways that someone can take to become addicted," he told the audience at Northwood Hall.

Genetic predisposition, mental health, family exposure and trauma all can play a role in chemical dependency. The two factors he thinks people can have the most control over are ignorance about drug and alcohol issues and availability of the drugs themselves. It's the availability that worries him as the state moves to license the sale of recreational marijuana.

"We've seen it with alcohol," he said. "If parents have alcohol or prescriptions in the medicine cabinet, the kids get it. To say that's not going to happen (with marijuana) is not realistic."

Carole Wells, who has worked with chemical dependency counseling in Whatcom County for more than 20 years, said that opiate addiction has become an epidemic in this area. For some, it starts with a legal prescription that turns to addiction, in some cases escalating from pills to heroin.

Rivers said he first started noticing the uptick in heroin use in 2008, when it started to overtake methamphetamine as the most common drug of choice for patients he spoke to.

"It's out of control," he said of opiate use in Whatcom County.

While the focus is often on youth when it comes to drugs and alcohol abuse, Rivers called the issue a "silent epidemic" among senior citizens. They're one of the fastest growing populations for drug addiction and alcohol abuse, he said.

"Senior citizens aren't breaking into cars and stealing alcohol," he said. "They don't come on the radar. The courts aren't saying they're flooding our jails, so nothing is seen."

Dennis Lane, executive director of Whatcom Community Television and Communication, thought the discussion was a good one but said it's a topic that needs a broader look. To get a better understanding of addiction, you have to look at society as a whole. It's not an issue that we can afford to ignore, he said after listening to the speakers.

"We are an addictive species," he said. "When we're not aware of it, that's when addiction can prevail."

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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