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Panel at Saltsburg gathering warns parents about dangers of drugs

| Friday, April 11, 2014, 11:42 a.m.
Gina DelFavero | The Dispatch
Panel members at the recent 'Dangers of Drugs' program at Saltsburg High School included Rachele Morelli (left) and Karen McMillan, whose sons both died of heroin overdoses.

A panel of law enforcement and drug and alcohol specialists gathered April 1 in the Saltsburg Middle/High School auditorium with a message for parents: Drugs are here in Indiana County, they are a growing problem, and no one is immune to them.

The “Dangers of Drugs — Prescription and Illegal” program urged parents to know drug-related terminology and to be aware of their children's actions, to be alert for any signs of drug activity.

Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty wanted to make clear to the audience that drugs are not a problem the county will face in the future — they're already here.

“The drug problem that we face in Indiana County and that we face in southwestern Pennsylvania is not uncommon,” he said. “And it's real.”

He said drug addiction has no social or economic boundaries, affecting people of every race and gender, whether they are rich or poor, young or old.

“It affects us all,” he said. “It's real easy to ignore the problem. It's real easy to bury our head in the sand. That doesn't work, and we see it each and every day.”

Increases in crime can also be blamed on the drug presence in the county, with addicts resorting to theft to feed their opiate habit. The southern tip of the county, including communities like Blairsville and Saltsburg, has proven to be a gateway from Westmoreland County, bringing in more drug traffic.

Dougherty said the “Dangers of Drugs” program has been presented in the area since 2011 and was revamped this year to include more personal stories from two mothers who lost their sons to drug addiction.

Karen McMillan spoke to the audience about losing her son, Corey, a 2008 Blairsville High School graduate who died in Louisiana Feb. 3, 2013 of a heroin overdose.

Though her son's overdose death didn't happen in his hometown, McMillan stressed that drugs are a problem in Blairsville.

“It is here, it's in our backyards,” she said.

McMillan has worked closely with fellow panelist Rachele Morelli through the Blairsville Support Group Against Drugs, which McMillan helped to found. The group meets at 6 p.m. the second Sunday of each month at the Blairsville Borough Building. More information on the group can be obtained by calling 724-549-2679.

Morelli spoke at the April 1 program about her son, Jonathan Morelli, an athletic, intelligent senior at Hempfield Area High School who had won more than $33,000 in scholarships before dying of a heroin overdose on Feb. 6, 2013.

“Addiction doesn't discriminate,” she said. “This can happen to anybody.

Morelli premiered a video in October that she had commissioned to detail her son's life and his drug addiction. Jonathan Morelli progressed to heroin use after being prescribed the pain medication Vicodin when he broke his wrist in the ninth grade.

Morelli showed the film about her son to the Saltsburg audience.

“I wanted to create this film to put out there to bring awareness to other kids,” Morelli said. “Everybody seems to have this attitude, ‘Well, that can't happen to me ... This can't happen to my son, my daughter, my family member.'

“So I put this film together to show how bad addiction is ... My goal through this film is to bring awareness in hopes that I can help at least one person avoid this nightmare that we live daily.”

Panel members noted narcotic drugs such as Vicodin can be a gateway to addiction because the user can build up a tolerance to the drug, leading them to find a stronger substance.

Jim Embree, a 10-year narcotics agent with the Attorney General's Office who specializes in prescription drugs, sees this on a daily basis.

He said that, nationally, prescription drugs have surpassed sales of all other illicit drugs put together, and it is a growing problem in Indiana County.

He urged audience mem bers to be aware that these prescription drugs that can lead to addiction are readily available in their own medicine cabinets.

“We talk to addicts every day who got their start by going into their grandmother's medicine chest and trying things out,” he said. “Just because a doctor prescribed it doesn't make it not dangerous or not addicting.”

Embree reviewed drug identification for the audience, using an overhead projector to give examples of what some of the most abused prescription and illicit drugs look like and the paraphernalia that users may have on hand to take the drug.

Embree warned parents about the growing popularity of “skittling parties” or what are known locally as “farm parties” — where each person brings some type of prescription drug, and the medications are poured into a bowl and mixed.

“Throughout the night, kids will just take a handful, having no idea what some of the drugs are, how they're going to react with one another or just how they're going to react with their metabolism in general — a very, very highly dangerous situation,” Embree said.

He said methamphetamine, more commonly known as meth, has gained a steady presence in Indiana County, with meth labs being broken up by police with more frequency.

Suboxone, which is used to help treat those with heroin addictions, is now becoming abused, with doctors having to complete only a 24-hour course to be able to dispense the substance. Addicts are using the drug as a safety net to help stave off withdrawal symptoms, he said, in case they would run out of heroin or pills they are abusing.

David Rostis, chief county detective with the Indiana County Drug Task Force, also appeared on the panel. He noted he's been in the drug enforcement field for about 20 years.

In those years, he said, officials have worked to keep what he called the “demon” that is heroin out of the county.

“But then the floodgates opened,” he said. “It's overtaken us.”

Heroin also brings an increase in both the incidence of crime and in deaths related to the drug.

Rostis cited the example of a probation officer who has had 10 of his clients lose their lives to an overdose or other factors related to their involvement in drug activity.

The task force uses funds from the Attorney General's Office to have undercover agents purchase narcotics off the streets and to help cover the wages of the officers that are working with the task force.

Rostis encouraged people who suspect drug activity in their neighborhood — such as an increase in traffic to a certain house, people coming up to a parked car and doing an exchange — to call the police or the Indiana County Drug Task Force.

The smallest tip can be the component investigators need to make an arrest, Rostis said.

Rostis said he and other drug officers have seen instances where a drug user has taken the needle from the arm of someone who has died from an overdose and injected any remaining substance, because it has proven to be “good stuff” if it's strong enough to kill someone.

Dan Christy, a paramedic with Citizens' Ambulance Service, said he has witnessed such incidents when responding to an overdose call.

He said controlled substances like Oxycontin and Vicodin block pain receptors and can be beneficial in the right setting and in the right amount. But addiction is the result of misusing or abusing these opiates to obtain a euphoric feeling.

Christy reviewed for the audience what happens when Citizens' Ambulance responds to a drug overdose call. Such cases, he said, typically result in the dispatching of two medic units as well as immediate response personnel.

“So that's six people potentially committed to the scene,” he said. “That's six people that are not responding to somebody's heart attack or somebody's ill child or the vehicle accident down the road that has your friend in it.”

It's a consequence of druabuse that many people don't think of — the number of emergency workers who are tied up in an overdose response.

The safety of the scene is determined during an overdose call. Christy said he won't send his staff into a situation that is potentially dangerous, which might be the case when drugs are involved. Police are often called in to secure the scene before emergency crews will respond.

Opiate overdoses are treated with Narcan. Christy described it as “an absolutely wonderful drug” that can be administered up the nose or via IV to reverse the effects of narcotic drugs.

But those who are brought back from the brink of death due to a drug overdose very rarely express thanks to their medical saviors, Christy said.

“That does not exist,” he said. “It's quite the opposite, actually.”

He said workers are often spit on, vomited on, or even lambasted for ruining the person's high.

He added that other people on the scene are often of no help, cleaning up any evidence that may clue emergency workers in to what they may be dealing with.

Jerry Overman, the county's newly elected coroner, works closely with Citizens' Ambulance because he is often dispatched as an immediate response personnel.

“The hardest part of my job is dealing with the parents or the brothers or the sisters or the aunts or the uncles” of someone who has suffered an overdose death, he said. “They're the survivors. They're the ones that have to pull it together” after being told of a loved one's death due to drugs.

Dougherty introduced the second half of the panel as the more positive response to drugs in Indiana County — people who deal with addiction recovery and rehabilitation.

“We have success stories,” he said. “We have people who have been addicted who are now clean and who are living productive lives.”

Panelist Kami Anderson, executive director of the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission, said addiction now affects one in four families, and the commission sees about 1,000 people every year in addiction recovery.

She said there is no limit to how many times a person can seek treatment through the drug and alcohol commission.

In terms of outreach, the commission conducts monthly Reality Tours, which are held at the Indiana County Jail and are meant to have parents open up conversations with their kids about the dangers of drug use. Drugs 101 is also a program that the commission offers, bringing speakers to various organizations.

Anderson encourages addicts seeking help for recovery to contact The Open Door, a local counseling organization, for initial assessment.

Craig Faish, a crisis hotline coordinator at The Open Door, said the crisis intervention hotline is a good resource for those seeking help with addiction recovery. It can be reached at 1-877-333-2470.

A way to help keep prescription drugs off the streets is to properly dispose of the drugs once they are no longer needed.

Indiana County has recently gained three prescription drug return drop-off boxes that people can use to get rid of unneeded drugs — one at the Blairsville Police Station, one at the Indiana Borough Police and one at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Police Station.

“The goal there is to get these narcotics out of your house when you're done using them,” said Dougherty. “We encourage you, when you're done with them, get rid of them.”

He said the three boxes have collected more than 74 pounds of unused prescription drugs in the last two and a half months.

The focus of the panelists was to make parents aware of the very real danger that drugs present and to arm them with information that they can use to talk with their kids.

“We have to make this so the conversation is not taboo,” Dougherty said. “This is a problem, and it's real, and it's in our schools.

“People should be scared to death of what we're dealing with.”

For those who have a loved one who is already suffering from addiction, the panelists' message is this — there is hope.

“It takes an army of people to help fight this disease,” Morelli said. “One person just can't do it. It's so powerful and it is everywhere and it affects everybody.

“But you can't ever give up hope. As frustrating as it is... you still have to hold on to hope, because as long as they're alive, there is still hope for them.”

Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or

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