Preventing Opioid Overdoes Deaths and Managing Pain Safely
Each day, more than 46 people die from overdoses involving prescription opioids in the United States. 

Since the late 1990s, opioid use has skyrocketed across America. In 2016, 17,087 Americans died from a prescription opioid overdoses—a 10% increase from 2015, and five times higher than the number of deaths in 1999. Almost no other major cause of death in America has increased so rapidly. Those who lose their lives from opioid overdoses are not the only ones affected. The opioid epidemic hollows out families and communities. It presents a daunting challenge to health care providers, to law enforcement, and to society as a whole.

In 2012 alone, 
259 million prescriptions
were written for pain relievers. That is enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.
In Santa Cruz County, enough opioids are prescribed for every man, woman, and child to be medicated around the clock for 6 weeks each year.

Santa Cruz County's opioid prescription rate (number of prescriptions per 1,000 residents) has slowly decreased over the last five years. However, the local prescription rate for opioids remains higher than the state average. When local opioid prescription rates are high, more people die of drug overdoses. In 2017, Santa Cruz County ranked 20th among 58 California counties for its high opioid overdose death rate.


The nationwide opioid epidemic cost more than $500 billion dollars in 2016 - including loss of workplace productivity and law enforcement costs related to diversion of drugs, as well as health care expenditures. More importantly, the epidemic is taking its toll in local communities, like the cities and towns in Santa Cruz County. In 2017 alone, 17 county residents lost their lives by overdosing on opioids.

Approaches to Reducing Opioid Overdose Deaths
Reducing opioid overdose deaths is an urgent health policy concern.

“We have to stop treating addiction as a moral failing, and start seeing it for what it is: a chronic disease that must be treated with urgency and


Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

Former United States Surgeon General

Two approaches have been proven to lower death rates:

  • Widespread access to an overdose antidote (naloxone)

  • Addiction treatment with medication (e.g. buprenorphine)

In combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, both naloxone and buprenorphine are a part of medication assisted treatment (MAT), a treatment method for substance use disorders and recovery sustainability.


Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is an effective response to opioid use disorder, combining the use of medicationsv (methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone) with counseling and behavioral therapies.


Only about 1 in 4 people with opioid addiction can stay sober without medication, but only 10-20% of people needing addiction treatment are able to find it. The measure of active buprenorphine prescribers in Santa Cruz County is a way to understand the availability of effective treatment for our community members who desperately need it.


Naloxone (also known as Narcan) is a medication that immediately reverses the effects of opioids, preventing death in someone whose breathing has slowed or stopped due to opioids.


Naloxone can be given by nasal spray or injection by a lay person with some basic training on its use. It is harmless if used accidentally. It can be obtained at a pharmacy without a prescription and can be dispensed to friends and family at community events. It can also be put in the hands of first responders, to make sure this life-saving medication is given in time. By the time someone gets to a hospital, it is often too late.



Buprenorphine is a medication used as a treatment for pain or opioid addiction. It has been shown to dramatically lower the risk of death for people with addiction, compared to addiction treatment without any medication.


Buprenorphine brings normalcy to a chaotic lifestyle, lessens cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and reduces illicit drug use, criminal activity, and transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.


For many people in Santa Cruz County, opioid overuse is an issue that affects them personally. Kaytlyn Garland is a 23 year old from Santa Cruz. She tells us her experience with opioids, sparked by a surplus of pain medication she received from her dentist that ultimately lead to heroin use. She tells us how she found her path to recovery after saving her boyfriend's life using the opioid-agonist Naloxone. Changing prescribing practices and increasing naloxone availability can save lives.

“I had heard about prescription drugs, but I had no idea what I was in for.”
   - Kaytlyn Garland, 23-year-old Santa Cruz County resident


Together we can address this epidemic, through coalition work, uniting providers, health plans, prescribers, law enforcement, as well as public health advocates, treatment center workers, victims, and concerned citizens. Together we can change how pain is managed while still treating people in pain.


To learn more about our local coalition work, visit SafeRx Santa Cruz County.


Community Resources

To learn more about substance use disorders and a compassionate local response, visit: Talk About It Santa Cruz County


To learn about local treatment options, visit:
Recovery Wave - County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services
Alcohol and Drug Services - County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency

Central Coast Recovery Options - Janus of Santa Cruz