White House official attends Hempfield drug summit

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 10:00 a.m.

The road to heroin addiction starts in the family medicine cabinet, a White House official told an audience on Thursday in Hempfield.

David Mineta, deputy secretary of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told more than 1,200 people at Hempfield Area High School there are 38,000 drug overdoses each year in the county and a large number are because of misuse of prescription drugs.

The drug summit was sponsored by the Hempfield Area school board, which has been wrestling with drug problems in the district. In February, a high school student died of a heroin overdose, prompting school directors to focus greater attention on the problem. Nearly every seat in the auditorium was filled and other people stood along the walls of the room.

One out of every five first-time users begin their life of drug abuse by taking a prescription drug they found in a medicine cabinet, he said.

The amount of prescription drugs in homes is so large that the Drug Enforcement Administration, at one of the National Take Back Days, collected 1,000 tons of prescription drugs that were voluntarily turned in during a 20-hour period, Mineta added.

The White House was alerted to the growing drug problem in Westmoreland County after reading a Tribune-Review article about five drug overdose deaths within a 2 12-day period. The deaths were discussed at the White House.

“What's happening in Hempfield? Mineta asked. “I think all of us would rather be somewhere else tonight. What brought us here is tragedy at the deepest level. I know your hearts are heavy but there is a driving determination that this is where it ends.”

Hempfield is applying this fall for a competitive federal grant, Mineta said, that will be awarded to local coalitions formed to educate people about drug abuse.

At one point during his presentation, Mineta asked anybody who had experienced drug abuse or a drug overdose death in their family to raise their hands. Dozens of people responded.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the illegal sale of prescription drugs is so lucrative for drug dealers that they are moving away from cocaine and heroin into pain medications, including OxyContin.

“You can't just reach for an OxyContin,” she said. “You just can reach for a Percocet. It only takes one time and then you're addicted.”

The most emotional moment occurred when Carmen Capozzi, who founded Sage's Army, described his son's battle with heroin that began when he was 14.

“I lost my son, Sage, to a heroin overdose on March 5, 2012. He was 20 years old. He told me, 'I don't want to die.' I knew I was powerless to help my kid.”

The White House Office of Drug Control Policy has taken a four-pronged approach to fighting drug abuse.

First, officials have focused their attention on educating physicians who prescribe narcotics and other opiates that the White House believes is one of the major factors in the increase in prescription drug abuse.

Second, it is pushing for a prescription drug-monitoring network that will prevent addicts from doctor shopping. It stresses the need for proper disposal of prescription drugs and better enforcement of drug laws.

The White House reports that only one in 10 people who need treatment is getting it.

When the Affordable Care Act goes into effect next year, insurance companies will be required to provide substance abuse treatment as part of their health care.

The provision, say officials, should drastically increase the number of people receiving treatment.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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