Drugs: Our Mon Valley's most pressing issue
Too few jobs, declining population or a need for more public-private investment are not the major problem threatening the future of the Mid-Mon Valley.
They're addictive, hallucinatory and “hard” drugs such as heroin, methamphetamines, oxycodone, cocaine and various powders and pills that people inject, sniff, snort and swallow.
They screw up bodies and brains.
The problem is chronicled almost every day in The Valley Independent, to wit:
Jan. 5 – A North Belle Vernon woman was sentenced up to 12 years in prison for operating a “stash house” in Monessen and traveling to New York City to purchase heroin with a male partner, also facing charges.
On the same day, a Fayette City man, 18, a Belle Vernon woman, 24, and a South Huntington man, 33, were reported sentenced on drug charges in separate cases in Westmoreland County Court.
Jan. 8 – A 43-year-old New Eagle woman, fired as a pharmacy technician at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, was formally charged for allegedly orchestrating a scheme to steal pain killers including oxycodone intended for hospital patients.
On the same day, the newspaper's “Police Log” carried four separate arrests of local residents on drug charges.
Jan. 10 – Three people were taken into custody in Donora after police seized 3,700 stamp bags of heroin, $33,477 in cash, drug paraphernalia and a revolver whose serial number had been obliterated.
On the same day, North Belle Vernon decided to keep the longtime Graham Street playground open for another year after threatening to close it because of drug activity.
Also that day, its police department disclosed the arrest of three 18-year-old females for underage drinking at a vacant house, where they discovered a purse with empty stamp bags and syringes.
Jan. 11 – Southwest Regional Police charged a second man in the aftermath of a disturbance, finding heroin, drug paraphernalia and a shotgun in a Union Township home.
Jan. 12 – State police arrested a 38-year-old woman and 34-year-old man in Donora after a search yielded a large amount of heroin and a gun.
So many lives ruined in just a week, a likely culmination of involvement in illicit activities for some time.
The cases reflect a range of ongoing criminality associated with drugs, sadly the Valley's fastest growing “business” in the aftermath of a once-booming steel industry that conked out.
“Drugs have become the issue of the day,” Carroll Township Police Chief Paul Brand affirmed. “Almost every time we solve a personal theft, forgery, credit card fraud, shoplifting, burglary or robbery, there's someone behind the crime with a drug issue.”
Still not convinced?
One week ago today, Westmoreland County Coroner Leo Bacha announced a record 71 deaths occurred in 2012 as a result of drug overdoses, including people from this area. Another 14 suspected drug deaths were still awaiting toxicology test results.
On the very same day, federal customs agents arrested a 22-year-old Belle Vernon area woman crossing the border from Tijuana, Mexico, into San Diego, a “mule” for drug smuggling. A field test indicated she was carrying suspected cocaine in a condom found in her vaginal cavity.
She was accompanied by a 44-year-old Fayette City man already awaiting trial on drug charges, including buying heroin in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.
Where do you think they intended to bring their stash from Mexico?
The expanding prevalence of substance abuse and related crimes threatens the safety, security and future of everyone living in the Mon River corridor from Brownsville to Elizabeth, once comfortable homes to respectable, law-abiding folks.
Recently, a major company in proximity to the Valley put out a call to hire dozens of new employees. Several hundred applicants showed up. Two-thirds were disqualified because they couldn't pass the drug test, because they had an arrest record or because they had both strikes against them.
What does that tell you?
Meanwhile, local police are finding and confiscating more guns in drug cases. Fortunately, violent crime to the extent of murder has not gotten out of hand to this point, “so we've been pretty successful there,” Brand said.
Only one person with a drug history was killed here last year, a Monessen man. Five young men have been charged in the fatal shooting that police believe was rooted in drug trafficking.
By comparison, Allegheny County recorded 96 homicides, 54 outside of Pittsburgh in struggling towns as well as in middle-class neighborhoods and suburbs considered “well-to-do.”
The people apprehended on drug charges represent the tip of an iceberg. How many other “druggies” are out there?
They're neighbors and relatives. Daughters and grandsons. Co-workers. Classmates. People you don't suspect.
Young people are the most vulnerable demographic, easily influenced by peer pressure and social media, growing up in dysfunctional families and tempted by easy access to illegal substances.
We see, hear and read about drugs, guns, gangs, addicts, crime and crazies in national and regional news every day.
Many turn a head and rationalize, “Not us! Not here!”
But information regularly published in The Valley Independent makes it abundantly clear the Mid-Mon Valley does indeed have a major drug problem and it's getting worse.
How many more lives will be ruined?
How much more can the people take?
Note: A sequel to today's column will appear next Wednesday.
Joe Grata is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.