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Hearings on Pa. heroin epidemic to kick off in Hempfield

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections will hold the first of three public hearings on the statewide heroin epidemic next week in Hempfield, according to Chairman Tim Krieger, R-Delmont.

Krieger has invited Gary Tennis, state secretary of drug and alcohol programs; district attorneys from Allegheny, Westmoreland, Indiana, Butler, Washington, Lawrence, Somerset and Cambria counties; and state and county narcotics investigators.

“One district attorney who is coming was eager to testify,” Krieger said. “This is not just a Westmoreland County problem. This is a very serious problem in Southwestern Pennsylvania. ”

Also testifying will be two recovering addicts who will explain to lawmakers how they became addicted to heroin.

“They've actually given me more insight than all the specialists,” Krieger said.

The other hearings will be held in Dauphin County and in the southeastern part of the state, he said.

“We need to better understand if Southwestern Pennsylvania is unique or not. We came to the conclusion that we need to understand the enemy better,” Krieger said.

The increased use of heroin, the rise in abuse of prescription pain medication and the resulting overdose deaths have triggered concern among treatment providers, health care specialists, law enforcement officials, school administrators and parents.

“How much of this is driven by abuse of prescription drugs? We need to understand that better,” Krieger said.

A number of community drug forums have been held since the Westmoreland coroner's office released statistics on the alarming number of overdoses in the county — 100 since January 2012. County officials established a task force to study the problem and make recommendations to reduce the number by 25 percent in three to four years.

Addicts are turning to heroin, which is cheap and potent, as a substitute for more expensive pain medications such as oxycodone and Vicodin that sell on the street for as much as $30 a pill, according to law enforcement officials. A dose of heroin, a powder sold in small packets, can fetch between $5 and $10.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that Pennsylvania has the third- highest heroin use rate in the nation, behind only California and Illinois.

Law enforcement and county coroners statewide report that heroin use is no longer confined to urban areas, and overdose deaths are rising in suburban and rural areas. Attorney General Kathleen Kane said in August that powerful Mexican heroin is the state's top drug problem.

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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