Heroin's popularity goes up
As heroin has become more potent and more accessible in the Pittsburgh area, paramedics and police in many towns, including Plum, have found themselves increasingly dealing with overdoses and crimes related to the opiate.
“Heroin use is having an effect on crimes and other incidents (in Plum),” borough police Lt. Jeffrey Armstrong said.
The opiate — which usually is sold in its brown powder form in stamp-size waxed-paper 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.
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 numbers do not surprise Armstrong, who said Plum's perspective on the heroin epidemic is different from towns such as nearby Monroeville that have more of a concentration of commercial development and quick access from the business district to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Parkway East.
“These are geographic meeting places to sell and distribute heroin,” Armstrong said.
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.
Armstrong said Plum's problem with heroin is “behind closed doors” in apartments and homes.
For instance, the borough police department's number of calls to assist on ambulance calls for suspected heroin overdoses has increased from three in 2010 to four in 2011 to 11 so far in 2012, Armstrong said.
The lieutenant also said though the number of burglaries and thefts in the town has not been on the increase, the number of crimes related to heroin has jumped.
“Our detectives see no drop-off in the heroin angle,” Armstrong said. “A junkie commits a burglary, and the objective of the burglary is to take jewelry and take it to cash-for-gold places. They can steal jewelry and turn it around and have heroin quickly.”
The highly addictive nature of the drug also spills over into everyday life and activities in Plum.
“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.”
Plum police in October 2011 arrested four people after receiving a call that a woman locked herself in a restroom at Sheetz on Route 286 and possibly overdosed, according to a police report.
Prior to police arriving, three men forced open the restroom door, carried out the woman, placed her in a car and drove away. Police tracked down the car. The woman recovered, and the four were charged with drug and other offenses.
One of the suspects told police the four drove from Cambria County to the Pittsburgh area to buy heroin, according to the police report.
Armstrong also said the Plum police department has more heroin in its evidence room than in previous years.
“There's much less crack (cocaine),” he said.
The lieutenant said in 2010 the department logged 16 property records involving varying amounts of heroin. That number increased to 17 in 2011 and 23 so far in 2012.
Armstrong also said he is finding more police calls are related to the drug.
The lieutenant said many times domestics, including fights and thefts between family members, assaults, thefts from vehicles and burglaries revolve around heroin.
“People steal from family members,” Armstrong said. “That is how desperate (heroin users) are.”
Capretto doesn't see the situation improving any time soon.
“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.”
Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or firstname.lastname@example.org.