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Westmoreland County's opiate addiction 'through the roof'

Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Jessica Maxim, 19, of Murrysville becomes emotional as her brother Joey Maxim, 17, recounts his story of nearly being killed in an accident involving a drunk driver at Cornerstone Ministries on Tuesday, March 19, 2013 in Export.

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By Richard Gazarik
Friday, March 15, 2013, 1:30 p.m.

Opiate addiction in Westmoreland County “is through the roof,” a Westmoreland County detective told a group of parents and current and former students from six school districts — Penn Hills, Greensburg Salem, Penn-Trafford, Plum, Kiski Area and Derry Area.

Tony Marcocci, who works for the District Attorney's Office, said heroin and other opiates are “killing people” because the drug is available, potent and cheap.

Marcocci was one of several speakers at a drug forum Tuesday at Cornerstone Ministries in Murrysville sponsored by Young Overcomers United, a program modeled after 12-step programs and run by Joe and Chris Maxim of Murrysville. About 300 attended the forum, which was the second major event in the county within a week.

Last week, more than 1,200 people attend a forum sponsored by the Hempfield Area School District featuring Attorney General Kathleen Kane and David Mineta, deputy director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy.

The back-to-back forums underscore the growing addiction problem in the county, Marcocci said. Last year, there were 78 drug overdose deaths in the county, according to the coroner's office. Excela Health in Greensburg said it treated 400 drug overdose patients last year in its emergency room.

People are getting addicted first to prescription pain medications and then gravitating to heroin, which has spread from Pittsburgh to the suburbs of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. In Murrysville, a stamp bag of heroin — containing 1100 to 3100 gram of heroin — costs $8 and is 80 percent to 90 percent pure, he said.

“It's very good heroin.”

As evidence of the growing addiction, Marcocci said 85 percent of all crimes committed in the county — burglary, theft, homicide and shoplifting — is linked to drugs.

“It's worse than I have ever seen it,” he added. “When the crack cocaine epidemic hit in the mid-1980s it was bad. It's much worse now.”

Tim Phillips, director of Community Prevention Services for Westmoreland Community Action, said a lack of inpatient beds and a county-based detoxification unit, is preventing addicts from getting help.

“People are dying waiting for a bed,” he said. “Addicts can't wait a week for a bed because they'll just continue using.”

Phillips said that 12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, are attracting standing-room-only participants with some sessions drawing 70 to 75 addicts attending when normally a dozen people attend.

“Some are coming in off treatment. Other are coming in off the street,” he said.

Parents heard recovering addicts, some still in high school, talk about their progression from marijuana, to pills to heroin and then to recovery through Young Overcomers United.

A Penn Hills student told the audience she was forced to detox at home because she was refused admission to a Pittsburgh hospital.

“It was literally hell,” she said.

A 26-year-old former Franklin Regional student explained how heroin “took hold of me and dragged me through hell. The only end I ever saw in the journey of addiction was death and I wanted that,” he said.

“This isn't an inner-city drug any longer,” Marcocci added. “I promise you, it's in our neighborhoods.”

He said the stereotypical drug addict is not a person lying in a ditch with a needle in his arm.

“It's good kids from good families.”

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

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