92 drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland shatter last year's record

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A record 92 people died of drug overdoses in Westmoreland County in 2013, shattering a record of 78 set the year before, Coroner Ken Bacha said.

One-third of those who overdosed this year used heroin, Bacha said. Two-thirds died from prescription drug overdoses.

“I'm not too surprised,” said Bacha, who in June predicted that his office would investigate a record number of drug-related deaths in 2013. “We've seen increases every year since I took office in 2002.”

All told, almost 650 people died of drug overdoses in the past 11 years, he said.

The numbers show the challenges facing the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force, said co-chairman Dirk Matson, director of human services for the county. The group held its first meeting in October and hopes to find long-term solutions to reduce the death rate by 25 percent in five years.

“But we also want to have an immediate impact, because people are dying,” Matson said.

“There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “Part of the difficulty is it's a national and regional problem.”

Most of the heroin deaths in Westmoreland claim younger adults, while overdoses from prescription drugs run the gamut, from ages 15 to 70, said county Detective Tony Marcocci.

“You'll have a soccer mom with chronic back pain taking pain meds, then one day, her husband wakes up and finds her cold — she's died of an overdose,” he said.

The number of fatal overdoses in Westmoreland is probably higher than the coroner's records list, officials said, because victims are taken to the nearest hospital. That's sometimes in an adjoining county, where the deaths would be recorded.

“We've noticed quite a few overdoses are not reported (here),” said Marcocci, who works for the District Attorney's Office.

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

The drug is cheap, potent and highly addictive, authorities said. Drug users can buy a single dose of high-quality heroin, called a stamp bag, for $8 to $10 in Westmoreland.

To address the heroin epidemic, the state House Judiciary subcommittee on crime and corrections in October held a public hearing in Hempfield, followed by others in central and southeastern locations.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County, said in June that the increase in addiction is a result of the overprescription of Vicodin, OxyContin and other pain medication, which has quadrupled since 1999.

Bacha noted that overdose deaths in the county, once split about evenly between heroin and prescription medication, have shifted to painkillers.

The Centers for Disease Control reported Pennsylvania is the 11th-worst state for overdoses related to prescription painkillers.

Marcocci said he's working to educate parents and teachers about a problem they don't know enough about. Many parents still don't address it even after finding that their children have drugs or drug paraphernalia, he said.

“‘My kid's only smoking weed,' they'll say. It's tolerated,” Marcocci said.

But he warned that “every single heroin addict I've talked to became addicted after starting with marijuana.”

Bacha noted that the marijuana available today is much more potent than in the past.

“I don't know one of our overdoses who didn't start out smoking marijuana,” he said. “It's a gateway, no doubt.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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