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Indiana County panel addresses growing concern about drugs

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Friday, Oct. 7, 2011
 

One simple way local residents can help combat a growing segment of the area's illicit drug trade is to properly dispose of their unused and expired prescription and over-the-counter medications.

A "Drug Take-Back" collection of unused, unneeded or expired medications will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 27 during a Senior Expo at the S&T Bank Arena at 497 East Pike Road, Indiana.

Kami Anderson urged residents to take advantage of the drug collection during her remarks at last week's initial town hall meeting organized by the Indiana County Drug Information Panel.

Executive director of the Armstrong-Indiana Drug and Alcohol Commission, Anderson told a standing-room-only crowd at the Blairsville Community Center that her organization has seen a large increase in prescription drug abuse among those who have been referred to the agency for help in addressing drug addiction.

"Get rid of your prescriptions when they're done." she advised. If the unused portion of a medication is stolen, "It will be put on the street, and then someone will use it." She cited Vicodin and Percocet, which each contain a narcotic pain reliever, as common prescription drugs that are sought by drug abusers.

During the past fiscal year ending in June, Anderson said, her agency sent about 1,000 people from Armstrong, Indiana and Clarion counties to drug treatment programs -- 724 males and 277 females. Among that group, she said, "We're seeing them younger and younger with higher and higher" levels of illegal drug use.

While the nicotine in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco is often one of the first addictive drugs young people encounter, Anderson said, "A lot are going straight to marijuana now," followed by prescription painkillers and stronger opiates.

Among the cases seen this past year by the Indiana-Armstrong Drug and Alcohol Commission, alcohol remained the most frequent drug of choice, accounting for 466 of the thousand people sent for treatment. She said heroin, seen in 237 of the cases, is now the second-place drug -- up from fourth place eight years ago. "We've seen a huge increase," she said, adding that marijuana was the third most frequently seen drug.

Anderson pointed out that medications can be turned in anonymously at the "Drug Take-Back" event, with "no questions asked." Personal information should be removed from containers before the medication is dropped off at a table that will be manned at the Senior Expo by The Open Door, a local agency that helps clients address addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

Items that may be dropped off include: prescription and over-the-counter tablets and capsules; liquid medications including creams and ointments; nasal sprays; inhalers; and pet medications.

Syringes and illicit drugs such as marijuana and heroin will not be accepted.

How you can help

The drug collection is being co-sponsored by the Indiana County District Attorney's Office, the Indiana County Drug Task Force, local state legislators and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Meeting panelists also advised that citizens can make a difference in the battle against drug abuse by taking notice of and reporting suspicious activity in their communities while also staying alert to the signs of potential drug problems in their own households.

While prescription medications are a growing part of the local drug problem, according to local officials, so are street drugs such as cocaine and heroin -- with the latter drug seeing a surge in the area.

Assistant District Attorney Pat Dougherty, who is Indiana County's chief juvenile prosecutor, acknowledged the local drug situation is "getting scary."

He said authorities have seen illicit drugs flow into the county mainly from sources in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit. "Drug deals are occurring out in the open, in public places," he said. He explained that parking lots of chain discount, pharmacy and convenience stores frequently are chosen as locations for the transactions because they are easy to find for drug traffickers coming from outside the local community.

Dougherty said it's a mistake to blame transient youth, including students at WyoTech automotive school and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, for the bulk of illegal drug use in the county. For the most part, he said, drug violators are "people you know, who have grown up in this community."

Lt. Brad Shields, commander of the state police station near Indiana, said the current level of drug use in the area is "the biggest problem I've seen in 25 years. It's countywide and nationwide. It's a huge problem."

Shields said one factor that has attracted drug suppliers to more rural areas such Indiana County is that the going rate for drugs such as heroin is higher in outlying areas located away from major cities. "They're entrepreneurs," he said. "They can get $15 for a stamp bag of heroin here. In Pittsburgh, they can get $10."

Dougherty said those numbers add up to a lucrative business for heroin dealers while creating a financial as well as a physical drain on those who become addicted.

He said an average heroin abuser may require anywhere from 14 to 20 stamp bags of the drug per day to satisfy his habit.

"The biggest thing is it's all over our community," Dougherty said of the current drug problem. He advised concerned citizens to "be realistic and vigilant."

What you should do

He cautioned residents against trying to intervene if they witness an apparent drug transaction, but notifying police of such suspicious activity can be helpful He added that citizens should not touch evidence of drug activity they may come across, as the items may be contaminated with harmful residue or body fluids. "If you see paraphernalia left behind -- a needle or a burnt spoon -- call law enforcement or medical personnel," who are equipped to safely remove such items, he said.

In addition to calling 911, District Attorney Tom Bianco noted tips on suspected drug activity can be reported anonymously to the Indiana County Drug Task Force. Tips can be relayed by calling county detective Dave Rostis in the District Attorney's Office, at 724-465-3835.

Drug-related problems in the county extend beyond arrests specifically resulting from drug raids or controlled substances found during traffic stops.

Several panelists at last week's meeting reported that much of the area's theft problems are fueled by drug abuse.

Dougherty recalled a case where a female suspect stole $32 worth of underwear from a chain store location near Blairsville and took it to the chain's White Township outlet: "She exchanged it for cash and bought her drugs."

Shields noted that cases of driving under the influence (DUI) reported by police include those who are driving under the influence of other drugs, not just of alcohol. He said state police have a drug recognition expert who can evaluate and order lab tests for drivers who are suspected of drug use. A telltale sign, he noted, is a driver who is "impaired but has no odor of alcohol."

Shields said DUI incidents investigated by troopers at his station have increased by almost 20 percent in the past two years.

Sex-related offenses also can be tied to the area drug trade, Shields said. "People are selling their bodies to get these drugs," he said.

Problem continues to grow

According to Shields, drug-related deaths also have been on the rise. He noted that, nationally, drugs have now become the leading cause of death for people age 25 or younger, surpassing the toll of traffic accidents.

According to Nancy Trimble Kline, psychiatric liaison in the emergency room at Indiana Regional Medical Center, an average of 57 people come to the emergency department each month with a condition where substance abuse is a factor. About half of them are admitted to the hospital.

Mike Grimes, safety and security coordinator for IRMC, indicated the hospital staff has encountered some serious drug cases in the past five years, including instances when patients were affected by "bad batches" of street drugs that were more toxic than usual.

"Hopefully, we can get a handle on this," Grimes said of the area drug problem. "We need to realize what problems there are, and we can maybe nip them in the bud."

Jennifer Rega, the magisterial district judge based in Blairsville, said the cases that are brought before her bear out the trend of retail theft as a major indicator of a serious drug problem.

She said some residents may object to cases where drug offenders ultimately faced reduced charges through the plea bargaining process. But, she explained, prosecutors may pursue such plea agreements as part of a strategy to "use lower level dealers to get to the higher level dealers."

On the other hand, she said, she often is approached by parents or spouses who want to get help for a family member who has a drug problem without causing legal trouble for their loved one.

While sympathizing with parents in that situation, Rega noted, "I can't randomly order people into rehab," although she said she can refer such families to agencies that can offer them help. Usually, when a person with a drug problem comes before Rega, they've already run afoul of the law, she noted.

"Prevention is the biggest step," Rega advised parents. "If you need to intervene, do it. Be the bad guy. In the end, you'll be in a better position."

"It's never too early to sit down and talk to your kids" about drugs, Anderson said, noting, "Ten-year-old kids are experimenting with drugs now."

Courtney Hankinson, prevention supervisor with the Open Door, said across the nation one in four families are affected by drug addiction, a trend that has a local impact. "This is a health crisis for our county," she said.

Ab Dettorre, a longtime football coach and veteran instructor at Blairsville High School, said drug problems have an impact on some students in his school. But, he said, the school staff "can only go so far as the parents allow us" in trying to intervene.

"We have a lot of great kids in this town, but we do have some kids who need help," Dettorre said.

He said parents need to take the lead in keeping tabs on their growing children and steering them away from trouble.

"Keep your kids busy all the time, so they don't have time to get in trouble," he suggested. "Know who they're texting. Know where they're at."

He agreed with Shields that parents should search their children's rooms for signs of drug use if they suspect a problem. "It's your house," he noted. "You can't be their buddy."

Hankinson cited some of the signs and symptoms of drug addiction:

Changes in behavior; aggression; anxiety; slowed reaction time; impaired coordination; slurred speech; lack of energy; inability to sit still; significant weight loss.

Daniel Christy, a local paramedic and advanced life support coordinator with Citizens' Ambulance Service, provided insight into the long-term health complications that can result from drug abuse.

He held up a container filled with syringes that ambulance crews have collected while responding to calls in the Blairsville area. "This is a big problem in our area," he said. "We've got to start being aware of what's happening with our neighbors."

Relating one incident to which he responded, Christy explained a young man in his 20s had been stealing his grandmother's diabetic supplies so he could use the syringes to shoot up with heroin. The episode that brought medics to the home resulted in a heart attack and long-term congestive heart failure for the man. Christy noted, "Now, he's going to be calling us all the time," due to the long-lasting health problems triggered by his drug use.

Bianco noted a drug treatment program in Indiana County may be offered as an option for those who are convicted of a drug offense when the individual is "not a hard core dealer but an addict caught in a revolving door." In the program, he explained, the addict will be placed in an inpatient rehab setting and eventually may step down to a halfway house and then house arrest under the supervision of the county probation department.

"They can gradually get their freedom back and become a productive member of society, but it's very time-consuming," he said, acknowledging that "a lot of people relapse and get back into the program."

What it all means

Some local residents attending last week's meeting expressed concern about the heightened prominence of drug activity recently in Blairsville and surrounding areas.

While the number of drug incidents has been growing, officials indicated that may be in large part because enforcement has improved. Dougherty said there is greater cooperation now between Blairsville Borough and state police. "Before, state police couldn't come in to do (drug) raids here," he said.

Shields noted drug cases in Blairsville and adjacent townships may be at an elevated rate because of the community's location along Rt. 22, the major southern entrance to the county. He told local residents, "You just happen to be situated where the highway is, where we do a lot of interdictions."

Rega also pointed out that the number of drug-related cases don't necessarily reflect the number of offenders: "A lot of times, it's the same people getting arrested over and over again."

The Reality Tour has been offered in the county since 2002, providing a dramatization of teen addiction for youths age 10 or older and their parents. Coordinated by The Open Door, the next session is set for 5:45 p.m. Wednesday at the Indiana County Jail.

Hankinson said the program is most effective as a preventive measure to help parents warn their children against the dangers and consequences of drug use before they get involved, not a way to address the problem with those who already are abusing substances.

"It's an opening for you to talk to your child about drugs," she told parents in attendance. For more information, visit www.theopendoor.org .

As another resource, Hankinson said, a family education support group meets at 6 p.m. each Thursday at The Open Door's Indiana office. "It gives family's the support they need to do the tough love," she said.

Hankinson said The Open Door also offers support groups and crisis intervention, through a 24-hour help line (724-465-2605) and offers help on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day at its Indiana office at 334 Philadelphia St. Appointments may be scheduled at the agency's satellite office in Blairsville.

Organizer Richard Coy said a Neighborhood Watch program in Center Township will have its next meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Coral fire hall. A drug-sniffing dog that augments the work of the county sheriff's office is expected to be among topics of discussion.

Blairsville's Neighborhood Crime Watch group, led by borough police, is expected to resume its meetings, beginning at 7 p.m. Oct. 25.

Also, an area Drug-Free Coalition meets at 11 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month at the Armstrong-Indiana Drug and Alcohol Commission office near Shelocta.

Bianco was pleased by the turnout for last week's town hall meeting. He said the Indiana County Drug Information Panel will schedule additional meetings through next year in various other communities. The next session is planned for the evening of Oct. 27 at the Indiana Fire Association's White Township station.

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