After years of dwindling popularity, crack cocaine is on the rise again
Move over heroin. Cocaine's making a comeback.
Although the amounts of cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, are not near the amounts officials saw being trafficked during its peak in the 1990s, police and drug use experts say it is once again gaining in popularity, in part because some drug users fear a deadly heroin overdose.
“That is right, we've definitely seen an increase over the last six months I'd say. We've seen both the plain powder and crack cocaine,” said county Detective Tony Marcocci.
A couple of examples:
• State troopers in Westmoreland County were watching a Hempfield home last month in response to complaints about many people coming and going from the residence at all hours.
When the Troop A Community Enforcement Team stopped a suspected drug buyer leaving the Arona Road residence the morning of Aug. 24, the woman driver reported that an alleged drug dealer, Orlando R. “Jay” Holt, 27, of Pittsburgh, was inside selling only crack cocaine. She said she had just purchased 5 grams.
Later, police said, they stopped a car Holt was in and confiscated a plastic baggie containing about 35 grams of cocaine, $1,983 in cash and three cellphones. Holt, who has drug convictions in Westmoreland County, was charged with possession and possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.
• A few weeks earlier, state police and county detectives stopped a car along the Pennsylvania Turnpike where the occupants, Diedre R. Fielding, 30, of Plum and Deandre L. Harris, 42, of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., who police described as major drug distributors, were found with 45 grams of pure heroin.
A search of Fielding's home in Plum, Allegheny County, turned up two kilograms of suspected cocaine valued at more than $60,000 that was packaged to be sold.
Marcocci said some users arrested with cocaine told investigators they switched to the stimulant because of fears over potentially lethal fentanyl-laced heroin.
“Some have said they are afraid of dying (from heroin),” Marcocci said.
The Philadelphia field office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported this spring that county coroners and medical examiners showed 4,642 drug-related overdose deaths in the state in 2016, an increase of nearly 37 percent. DEA Special Agent Gary Tuggle said a key finding from the 2016 report indicates the presence of a prescription or illicit opioid was identified in 85 percent of the overdose deaths.
Like heroin, cocaine is cheap, Marcocci said.
“Cocaine's actually cheaper than it used to be when it was at its height. It used to be $100 a gram, but now it's anywhere from $80 up to $100,” Marcocci said.
Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center, which serves nearly 1,700 adults and youths daily through facilities in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, also sees increased abuse of cocaine.
“Cocaine abuse really never went away. ... Cocaine has always been here. But we absolutely have seen an increase in cocaine use over the past six months,” Capretto said.
While some users say they're using cocaine because of the number of fatal overdoses tied to heroin, Capretto said many others admit to doing it “together with heroin to enhance their high.”
Capretto said some users admit to doing “speedballs” — combining cocaine and heroin “to get a greater rush.”
He said speedballs are dangerous, too. The toxic mix was the cause of death for well-known actors John Belushi and River Phoenix.
“It's definitely extra dangerous,” he said.
Tim Phillips, director of Westmoreland County's Drug Overdose Task Force, has noted that cocaine is on the rise this year.
“Not only are we seeing increases in crack cocaine that is usually smoked, but powdered form as well,” Phillips said.
“Some tend to think (cocaine) may be less dangerous, but that's not the case at all. We've noticed some of it is now being cut with synthetic fentanyl. ... It's really pretty risky,” Phillips said.
He noted cocaine can be fatal by itself by causing a heart attack or stroke but isn't considered as lethal as many opioids.
He agreed with Capretto that a lot of the use is in speedball combinations.
“People unfortunately are seeking an enhanced thrill ... but they are wrong to think (cocaine) is somehow less dangerous,” Phillips said.
There is some good news on the cocaine front regarding teen use. According to a report the National Institute on Drug Abuse released in December, a survey showed that during the past year, cocaine use was down among 10th-graders, to 1.3 percent from 1.8 percent in 2016. Cocaine use hit its peak at 4.9 percent in that group in 1999, the report said.
Last spring, an examination of data by the same agency showed heroin and synthetic opioids were driving a recent increase in cocaine-related overdose deaths.
The assessment conducted by scientists at NIDA, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, showed that cocaine-related overdose deaths increased between 2000 and 2006, but declined between 2006 and 2010.
However, cocaine-related overdose deaths increased after 2010 , despite decreased cocaine use. The scientists found that the latest increase was related to cocaine-related overdose deaths involving opioids, primarily heroin or synthetic opioids, and corresponded to the growing supply and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl in the United States, the report said.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, email@example.com or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.