County officials discuss drug abuse at Norwin Lions forum

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Drug use has become a common problem across Pennsylvania, especially in Westmoreland County, according to several state and county officials.

A panel of officials discussed drug addiction, drug use and prevention efforts in Westmoreland County last week during the Norwin Lions Club's community drug-awareness forum.

Gary Tennis, the state secretary of drug and alcohol programs, described addiction as an invisible giant, ripping apart communities.

“Drug and alcohol addiction is a disease that is in at least one out of four families,” Tennis said. “It's always a fatal disease.”

Most addictions, especially for teenagers, start in the home with prescription painkillers, Tennis said.

After someone becomes addicted to prescription drugs, it's common to make the transition to harder substances, such as heroin, he said.

“What's happening in Westmoreland County, we're seeing in other urban counties,” Tennis said. “It's happening all over, although none are spiking in drug-related deaths quite like Westmoreland.”

Since 2002, county officials attributed heroin overdoses to nearly 40 percent of all drug-related deaths in Westmoreland County, according to records from county coroner Ken Bacha.

Over the last 10 years, drug-related deaths have continued to rise from 22 overdoses in 2002, to 78 deaths in 2012. During that 10-year period, heroin-related deaths have more than doubled, from 12 in 2002 to 27 deaths in 2012, Bacha said.

“A lot of our heroin overdoses are actually people who graduated up to it from prescription pain medications,” Bacha said. “Heroin is a lot easier to get.”

As of April 1, Bacha reported 22 drug-related deaths, including 10 attributed to heroin overdoses.

County narcotics detective Tony Marcocci said heroin use has become an epidemic in Westmoreland County.

“This is no longer just in low-income areas, like Jeannette, Monessen or New Kensington,” Marcocci said. “It's in all of our neighborhoods.”

Although addiction is a disease, it can be reduced through instituting community awareness and prevention programming, said Tim Phillips, community prevention director at Westmoreland Community Action.

Each community needs to develop its own way to educate its residents about the dangers of using controlled substances and how to help those facing addition, he said.

“Each overdose is preventable,” Phillips said. “There's no reason anybody should have to die from addiction today, but it takes all of us working together as a community.”

Carmen Capozzi, founder of Sage's Army, a drug-addiction awareness organization based out of Irwin, said families have to begin discussing drug use and cannot ignore things happening in their neighborhoods.

Capozzi's son, Sage Capozzi, died on March 5, 2012, after overdosing on heroin. He said he hopes better lines of communication between family members and preventative measures can stymie the growing trend of drug-related deaths in the region.

“We have to break the stigma and silence surrounding addiction,” Capozzi said. “We have to not be afraid to talk about addiction; it's killing our kids.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or

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