"For me I feel like it's drugs for breakfast, drugs for lunch, drugs for dinner, drugs drugs drugs," Orange County Superior Court Judge John Adams said. "That's been my diet for 11 years on the bench."
Adams, who hears felony arraignments at the Westminster courthouse, including cases from Costa Mesa, was one of five panelists at Estancia High School on Thursday.
At the behest of state Sen. Mimi Walters, he joined medical and law-enforcement experts to describe the scope of prescription drug abuse in Orange County.
"It's really, from my perspective, a tsunami," he said.
Walters began convening town halls on the topic after she was approached by a mother whose son overdosed on prescription pills and died.
She opened Thursday's event with a portion of the documentary "Behind the Orange Curtain," a documentary about prescription drug abuse and the deaths it has caused in the county.
"As parents we would rather have our own lives taken than our children's lives," Walters said, prompting nods of agreement in the audience. "And this doesn't have to happen. We can stop it."
Twenty-four percent of high school students take prescription drugs for recreational purposes, said Dr. Valeh Karimkhani, founder of Orange County Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine in Newport Beach.
"This is a much larger problem than people are anticipating," she said.
In the United States, an explosion in the availability of opioid painkillers has helped make prescription drug overdoses a more common cause of death than automobile wrecks, said Kevin Barnard, a former police detective.
He is now treasurer for the National Assn. of Drug Diversion Investigators, a nonprofit that acts as a bridge linking law enforcement, healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies and regulatory agencies.
The abuse filters into all communities, including Orange County, he said.
"The disease of addiction knows no socioeconomic boundaries," Barnard said. "It's the great equalizer in the human condition."
Judge Adams told the audience that he is astounded by the drug offenders he sees before his bench.
"I have the young and the beautiful in my courtroom every single morning," he said.
Those cases of prescription drug abuse often revolve around misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance without a prescription as opposed to felony raps often handed out for drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine or heroine, he said.
During a question-and-answer session, some members in the audience of about 35 grew impatient. they shouted questions that expressed frustration and a sense that it is taking too long to address prescription drug abuse.
"This isn't new," said John Tomkinson, who identified himself as a recovering addict. "This has been going on for years"
Multiple parents in the audience said their children who overdosed might still be alive if something had been done earlier.
Tomkinson contended there is hope, however. He told Adams that he's been sober for nine years thanks to a sentence the judge imposed on him.
"Thank you, your honor, for sending me to jail," Tomkinson said.