Heroin's popularity goes up in Monroeville
As heroin has become more potent and more accessible in the Pittsburgh area, paramedics and police in Monroeville have found themselves increasingly dealing with overdoses and crimes related to the opiate.
Heroin-related deaths in Allegheny County increased from 62 in 2008 to 95 in 2011, according to the office of the Allegheny County Medical Examiner.
Through Nov. 2, there were 82 heroin-related deaths this year, which accounts for 48 percent of all fatal drug overdoses in the county.
The number of heroin-related incidents are on the rise in Monroeville, as well, thanks to quick access from the business district to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Parkway East.
First responders have seen the overall number of drug overdoses rise from 19 in 2007 to 46 in 2011, and Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole said that increase can be attributed to heroin use.
“As a highway crossroads, we get a lot of people moving through here either transferring or delivering drugs,” Cole said.
The opiate — which usually is sold in its brown powder form in stamp-size waxpaper packets — has spread to middle- and upper-class suburbs over the past 10 years, said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director for Gateway Rehabilition Center, which has a rehab facility in Monroeville.
“I see this getting worse before it gets better,” Capretto said.
“There are more people addicted to heroin today than ever before throughout western Pennsylvania,” Capretto said.
Heroin usually is transported to the region from port cities such as New York and Baltimore, said Nils Fredrickson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office.
Police have traced drug-trafficking routes from New Jersey to Monroeville. Large quantities of the drug often are transported from Monroeville hotel rooms to neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, where mid-level dealers mix it with other drugs or foreign substances to increase their profit, said Monroeville narcotics detective Jon Pawlowski. Then, some of it makes its way back to Monroeville to be sold to users, he said.
In October, a pound of heroin was seized from a Monroeville hotel room as part of an effort between state police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The room was rented to a man from New York City, who was joined by two illegal aliens from Nigeria, one of whom is “known” to immigrations officers as a drug courier, according to the police report. They were meeting with an O'Hara Township man when agents moved in.
Pawlowski said a kilo of heroin, which is 2.2 pounds, is worth at least $54,000.
Monroeville police filed 15 charges of heroin possession and 16 charges of possession with intent to deliver in 2011. As of Nov. 8, police filed nine charges of heroin possession and 10 charges of possession with intent to deliver, according to police records. However, those numbers do not include charges filed by state, federal and other local agencies for incidents that took place in Monroeville, which would represent about seven additional charges of heroin possession and about eight charges of possession with intent to deliver over the past two years, Cole said.
While dealers risk charges of distribution, addicts often will risk charges of property crimes to support their habit, Cole said.
A spike in burglaries in Monroeville from 2009 to 2010 can be linked to an increase of heroin use throughout suburbs, Cole said. Police reported 47 burglaries in 2009, then 94 in 2010 and 99 in 2011.
“What goes along with heroin is addicts having to support themselves,” Cole said.
‘Playing with fire'
Heroin addiction takes hold quickly.
“It's easily addictive after a couple doses,” said Dr. Tim Muchnok, staff physician in the emergency room at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville. “Heroin is one of the most addictive medications out there.”
It's so addictive that people have overdosed at major intersections and in front of Monroeville businesses.
Some people from the eastern suburbs and as far as Latrobe are using the Monroeville business district as a meeting place for drug deals, Cole said. And if the drive home is too long— or if the buyer has nowhere to go for an immediate fix — users often end up getting high in public places.
“We've had them unconscious in the bathrooms, in cars in parking lots,” Cole said.
A woman overdosed last summer at the intersection of Routes 22 and 48, a scene that Pawlowski, who happened to be in a vehicle in the next lane, witnessed.
“This guy was shaking this girl … she was blue,” he said. “I could see it was an overdose.”
Pawlowski radioed for an ambulance while the driver of the vehicle pulled into a parking lot nearby.
“We see it all the time now,” Monroeville paramedic Eric Poach said. “I hardly go a week that I don't see (an overdose). It never used to be like this.”
The drug also is far more potent than in past years, said Poach, who has been treating overdose patients for 35 years.
Over the past decade, the necessary amount of Naloxone — a drug that counteracts heroin — has increased from 0.4 milligrams to as much as 8 milligrams, he said.
“People are playing with fire now,” said Poach.
Poach said his sister died from an overdose in July at the age of 56, after mixing a prescribed antidepressant with heroin.
He said she had struggled with depression after a head injury in 1996.
“It can happen to anybody,” Poach said. “It doesn't know a boundary, it doesn't know an economic class at all, and it doesn't really care what your other medical problems are.”
For many, the addiction starts with prescription drugs — such as Vicodin and Oxycontin — that contain the same narcotic found in heroin, said Richard Shaheen, senior supervisory special agent for the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
Prescription drugs have overtaken marijuana as the drug type most often abused by middle-school students, said Shaheen, who specializes in community outreach programs aimed at middle- and high-school students.
“If you suspect your child is abusing, have them tested,” Shaheen said. “Seek professional help.”
Once someone begins using prescription opiates, the jump to heroin simply is a matter of economics some experts say.
Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton said the demand for heroin is fueled by the fact that it's cheaper than prescription drugs.
The price for a bag of heroin ranges from $7 to $13, while 10 bags range from $80 to $100, police said.
Depending on a person's tolerance for the drug, a bag could last a day or a few hours.
“It's cheaper to buy heroin than a case of beer,” said Burton. “Some started snorting it or putting it on their gums. At this point, they're mostly injecting it.”
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.