LA County Substance Abuse Medical Director Says Diversity is Strength in the Fight against the Opioid Epidemic

While Los Angeles County is taking on efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, only eight of California’s 58 counties have fewer opioid overdoses, says Gary Tsai, LA County Medical Director and Science Officer of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control.

“As a whole, the opioid crisis hasn’t hit Los Angeles the same way it’s hit other areas of the country,” Tsai told Addiction Now. “We haven’t seen the same devastating impact that New Hampshire, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and all those areas.”

One difference, he says, is due to LA’s cultural diversity. “Studies have consistently demonstrated that certain cultural minority groups, in particular, Latinos and Asians, simply don’t reach for prescriptions medications the same way that other cultural groups do.”

Latinos are still the second largest user among heroin, mostly due to the very high population of Latinos in Los Angeles.

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With a diverse population of more varied experiences, Tsai says, LA County is less vulnerable to opioid addiction. “The likelihood of opioids being problematic is just reduced,” says Tsai. “In some ways, cultural diversity is protective.”

Opioid addictions often begin when people seek treatment for pain. “One of the big problems has been people getting started on prescription opioid pain medications first and then graduating to more opioids and sometimes illicit [opiates] like heroin.”

Los Angeles has higher numbers of overdoses than some counties, mostly because it has a large population. Still the county has a high opioid use rate at 18 percent. Though the county still has higher opioid addiction rates than others, it pales in comparison to some areas of the country.

About ten percent of the United States population receives treatment for opioid addiction. Yet California doesn’t rank in the top state lists for opioid abuse, and LA County is in the bottom ten for opioid addiction.

“In LA, even though we’d like to do a better job, we do have fairly good access to substance use treatment,” Tsai says. “We want to strive for a higher number.”

LA County also implemented the Drug Organized Delivery System Waiver in July, opening the door for people to get the treatment they need.

“The drug medical waiver is an expansion of substance use treatment through Medicaid, in California it’s known as MediCal,” says Tsai.

Residents are encouraged to call the Substance Abuse Service Helpline (SASH) to get connected with the appropriate treatment following a brief screening assessment. Tsai says the Substance Abuse Prevention and Control (SAPC) also has a website with more information on how to deal with an opioid addiction.