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Washington County officials work toward battling drug epidemic

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Stacy Wolford | The Valley Independent
A prescription drug and opiate roundtable discussion was held Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, at Washington County Courthouse Square. Shown, from left, are Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, U.S. Attorney David Hickton and Cheryl Andrews, executive director of the Washington County Drug and Alcohol Commission Inc. The conference was hosted by Vittone and Toomey.

The head of Washington County's drug and alcohol commission told U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey fighting prescription drug addiction is like “being on a battlefield unarmed.”

“We're frustrated and something more needs to be done in Pennsylvania,” Cheryl D. Andrews said Wednesday during a roundtable discussion about the growing epidemic of prescription drug and heroin addictions and overdoses.

The discussion, held at Washington County's Courthouse Square, was hosted by Toomey and Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone.

Toomey described the escalating prescription drug problem as “stunning.”

“It's happening to people of all age groups and ethnicities and backgrounds,” Pennsylvania's Republican senator said. “We have to solve this problem.”

Vittone said drug overdoses killed more than 60 people in Washington County in 2013.

“Drug abuse isn't new,” Vittone said. “But the deadly impact we're seeing today certainly is.”

Washington County Coroner Tim Warco said 58 drug overdoses occurred last year – more than double the number from 10 years ago.

“On Saturday I was in a house with a 14-year-old daughter whose mother was dead in bed with a fully-loaded syringe in her arm,” Warco said. “The lives of families are affected forever. It doesn't go away after the funeral service.”

U.S. Attorney David Hickton said that while law enforcement continues to focus on the supply side of illegal drug dealing, society needs to refocus on addiction as an illness.

“There is no more pressing problem we face as a community than prescription pill abuse and heroin use,” he said. “It touches every single family in western Pennsylvania and across the country. Every single person has been touched by this problem.”

Hickton and David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and other speakers called for state lawmakers to pass a comprehensive drug monitoring program that is accessible to police as well as doctors and pharmacists.

“We're probably one of the worst states in monitoring the doctor-shopping, pill-shopping habit,” Hickton said.

Freed, district attorney of Cumberland County, said members of the state House of Representatives last fall passed a version of a drug-monitoring program but an amended version giving law enforcement officials better access to the information soon could be introduced.

“Like a tornado, heroin is a drug that devastates everything in its path,” said Freed. “Heroin destroys lives and for too many Pennsylvanians, heroin addiction starts with prescription drug abuse.”

Freed and Vittone also noted the recently launched prescription drug “take back” program. Known as PA MedReturn, the program allows people to dispose of unused and expired prescription and over-the-counter medication safely and anonymously.

Washington County has installed 19 of the 250 boxes expected to be installed throughout the state.

Freed and Andrews also said there is a need for a statewide “Good Samaritan” law. The law would allow people to call for help when someone overdoses without fearing criminal charges.

Andrews said some drug addicts would “let someone die” so they would not face legal action. She said she'd also like to see better access of Naloxone, better known by the brand name Narcan, to people with addictions.

Narcan is used by medical personnel to counteract opioid or other narcotics in the body.

“Narcan reverses an overdose and buys about 30 minutes,” said Gary Tennis, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol programs. “It's a powerful tool for saving lives.”

Toomey said he would take the feedback and suggestions to help make better decisions in Washington, D.C.

“It helps me get a better sense of where to put resources,” Toomey said, adding he will be hosting other roundtable discussions in the region.

Stacy Wolford is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-684-2640 or at

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