Washington DA: Unified effort vital to battle prescription drug, heroin abuse
As Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone spoke Thursday, more than a dozen law enforcement officers stood stoically behind him.
The message was clear: A unified effort is vital to battle a prescription drug and heroin problem that is plaguing the county.
During a press conference in the Washington County commissioners' meeting room to discuss a drug problem that has caused record numbers of crimes and overdose deaths, Vittone acknowledged no law enforcement agency can fight the battle alone.
“Part of the point of today was to make sure the public is aware we're working together,” Vittone said. “It's an epidemic. We work across county lines on cases. And it's good to have those connections so you can get law enforcement working together.”
Approximately 90 percent of crimes his office investigates are related to drug addiction or drug sales, he said. Vittone's first homicide case involved prescription pills.
“The one that doesn't get reported the most is addicts taking advantage of their family members financially, maxing out their credit cards and emptying their bank accounts.... Some of these are sad because they're older people and end up losing basically everything,” Vittone said.
“We've had situations where the addict is the person providing care to the older adult, so they don't want to report anything because it's the person who takes them to the grocery store or helps them throughout the day.”
Vittone outlined a four-prong strategy:
• Education – inform young people and parents of the dangers of prescription drug abuse before it starts, while training medical practitioners and health care professionals about the appropriate methods of prescription opioid distribution.
Both heroin and prescription drugs like Vicodin (hydrocodone) are classified as opioids.
“Ultimately, it comes down to a personal decision: Am I going to use or not use,” Vittone said. “That's something hopefully we can combat through education, making people aware of the dangers of these drugs and maybe getting them to go in a different direction.”
• Tracking and monitoring — Vittone said he hopes Pennsylvania enacts a law authorizing a prescription drug monitoring program that would create a statewide database to help doctors and pharmacists identify problem patients. Forty-three states currently have a similar program.
“From what I'm hearing from the (Drug Enforcement Agency) and other agencies, Pennsylvania has almost become a source because we don't have that real-time data available to health care professionals that need it,” Vittone said.
• Proper medication disposal — Vittone lauded the county's prescription drug take-back program, through which residents can drop off unused medication at 17 municipal police departments. He said one of the most productive bins is located at Monongahela Valley Hospital in Carroll Township.
“With hydrocodone, there's enough in the country right now to medicate every person in this country at therapeutic levels for the next month,” Vittone said.
“That's why the drop boxes are popular. And it's so important to get that excess medication out of houses and disposed of properly, but it's going to take a combined effort from industry, physicians and law enforcement.”
• Enforcement — Use data and to indentify criminal prescribers and clinics and increased training for law enforcement and prosecutors.
Vittone said he has formed a drug abuse working group and will meet with Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey Feb. 19 in the commissioners' meeting room.
According to Washington County Coroner Tim Warco, 58 drug overdoses occurred last year – more than double the number from 10 years ago. Nearly half were related to heroin and 51 victims ranged in age from 20 to 49.
When Warco first took office in 1992, two overdose deaths took place. He said two overdose deaths occurred just this past weekend.
“It's a societal problem that touches each and every one of us within Washington County. No family, no race, no socioeconomic level is immune from this problem,” Warco said.
“We have families where it's repeated because the kids see parents abusing. And when they're of age, they pick up the habit.”
State police Lt. Doug Bartoe said there has been one overdose death in the county related to deadly heroin mixed with fentanyl that carried the label “Theraflu.” Bartoe did not disclose details of the death, saying it was still under investigation. Vittone interjected, saying all brands of heroin are potentially deadly.
Vittone and Warco urged anyone involved in a possible overdose to immediately call 911.
“Our interest is in saving a life,” Vittone said. “We'll work through the legal consequences later.”
Vittone confirmed after the press conference that the only way to end heroin addiction is snuffing out mass distribution at the national level.
“Heroin isn't grown in this country. It's coming in from outside this country, and there's a way it gets here,” Vittone said. “That isn't something I can address on a local level, but I know law enforcement at the federal level is working with us on a local level and sharing information.”
Canonsburg police Sgt. Al Coghill concurred.
“A typical addict does 10 to 15 (stamp) bags of heroin a day, paying anywhere between $10 to $15 a bag. Our reality is we have drug addicts who need money to support a habit that commit over 90 percent of our crimes,” Coghill said.
“Our niche is we attack them left and right. If we can arrest as many small-time dealers and addicts as we can, we take a small crime wave off the street. That's all we can do.”
Vittone said fighting the battle will be laborious, intensive and costly. But, he said, there is hope. New treatments are developing that are more effective to fight addiction, and law enforcement is getting smarter and sharper in limiting drug sales, he said.
“One reporter told me, ‘You're doing all these things and the death rate was up last year.' Well, we don't know what it would have been if we weren't doing these things,” Vittone said. “ ... You've got to believe in that or what's the point of trying? I truly believe all problems are solvable.”
To report illegal drug activity in Washington County, call the Washington County Drug Task Force at 1-800-281-0070, 24 hours a day. All calls are confidential.
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.