Drug-use epidemic plagues community

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 12:31 a.m.

Forty-two Fayette County residents died of heroin and prescription opiate overdoses last year, and as many as 50 people could lose their lives this year.

Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission Inc. shed light on the epidemic plaguing the community on Monday when it presented Prescription Drug Abuse: The Cost of Getting High at Connellsville Area Senior High School.

The program featured drug treatment specialists, law enforcement officials, legal experts, medical professionals and recovering addicts.

Fayette County Coroner Phillip Reilly said the number of deaths caused by drug addiction has tripled in the county during the past few years.

In neighboring Westmoreland County, the number of deaths from drug overdoses has quadrupled, Reilly said.

“This is a huge problem throughout Pennsylvania and the nation,” he said.

Physicians are prescribing opiate medications, including Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin, for pain relief, and some of these patients become addicted to the drugs, Reilly said. When the addicted patients can no longer receive prescriptions from their doctors, they seek out painkillers on the streets, and in some cases, switch to heroin, which is much cheaper, Reilly said.

A stamp bag of heroin sells for as little as $10 on the street, he said. Stamp bags are small wrappers that include catchy phrases to entice young users.

The Centers for Disease Control released statistics indicating that 100 people die of drug overdoses in the United States every day, according to Brian Reese, treatment supervisor at Fayette County Drug & Alcohol Commission.

“We've seen a 20-percent increase in the number of people seeking treatment for prescription drugs and opiate dependence, including heroin,” he said.

Reese, who has worked as a drug addiction specialist for 20 years, said the image of a typical heroin addict has changed over the years.

“Everyone thinks of a heroin addict who lives on the street and doesn't shower,” he said. “But in the past 20 years, I've learned that is not the case. More heroin addicts are dressed like me. They don't live under bridges.”

Reese said the panel is trying to find out what can be done to make the problem better and to offer hope to drug addicts and their families.

“We are offering both alarm and hope,” Reese said. “There is an economic cost of getting high, and most drug addicts turn to theft and burglary to feed their drug habit and end up in the criminal justice system.”

Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks said 80 percent to 90 percent of the county's 2,500 court cases each year are related to drug and alcohol addiction.

“The problem haunts our prisons, communities, counselors, physicians, families, the community and the criminal justice system,” Heneks said. “Drug addicts will steal from their parents, their aunts and uncles and grandparents for another fix. These are the crimes that break up families. The drug becomes their god.”

Heneks said it is upsetting to have a heroin or cocaine addict test positive for drugs while on probation.

“The judges have no option except to send that person back to jail,” Heneks said. “In some cases, they don't belong in jail. We now have special courts in place to deal with these issues. We have mental health courts, and soon we're going to have drug courts. It's not a get-out-of-jail free card, but it allows drug addicts to get the help they need.”

Cindy Ekas is a contributing writer.

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