92 drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland shatter last year's record
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Derry man gets 19-year prison sentence for recording sex assaults of girl
- Southmoreland School director named
- Girl, 10, forced to strip in Sewickley Township home invasion
- Kecksburg celebrates its UFO history with annual festival
- Convicted home invader from Monessen wants new lawyer
- Music on way to Westmoreland’s Twin Lakes Park
- Westmoreland torture-slaying convict Smyrnes says death row isolation too cruel
- Greensburg YMCA seeks soccer sites for fall
- Contract talks progress in Derry
- Hempfield murderer serving life sentence promises restitution when he’s released
- Police: Scottdale man had child porn on computer