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St. Vincent professor's drug study turns up surprising data

Renatta Signorini
| Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, 9:06 p.m.
St. Vincent College senior Marie Lotto and Dr. Eric Kocian, assistant professor of Criminology, Law and Society at Saint Vincent, discuss their study on behalf of the drug overdose task force which they hope will help determine the roots of addiction and to identify paths to earlier intervention at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
St. Vincent College senior Marie Lotto and Dr. Eric Kocian, assistant professor of Criminology, Law and Society at Saint Vincent, discuss their study on behalf of the drug overdose task force which they hope will help determine the roots of addiction and to identify paths to earlier intervention at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
(from left) Saint Vincent College seniors Olivia Matthews, Marie Lotto and Dr. Eric Kocian, assistant professor of Criminology, Law and Society at Saint Vincent, discuss their study on behalf of the drug overdose task force which they hope will help determine the roots of addiction and to identify paths to earlier intervention at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
(from left) Saint Vincent College seniors Olivia Matthews, Marie Lotto and Dr. Eric Kocian, assistant professor of Criminology, Law and Society at Saint Vincent, discuss their study on behalf of the drug overdose task force which they hope will help determine the roots of addiction and to identify paths to earlier intervention at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg on Thursday, June 11, 2015.

The results of his study were surprising to Eric Kocian.

Only one of the 158 study participants reported moving from abusing a legitimate prescription painkiller directly to heroin use without any previous drug experimentation.

Instead, most of the drug users reported a strong link between using cocaine and heroin. Of people who used both drugs, 77 percent tried cocaine first and then moved to heroin and 23 percent said they used heroin first before moving to cocaine.

“Once you're in that culture, you're going to move from one drug to the next as sort of a domino effect,” said Kocian, an assistant professor of criminology, law and society at St. Vincent College in Unity. “And for most people, the last stop is heroin.”

For the last two years, Kocian has been compiling the results of surveys with 158 drug users and people in recovery in Westmoreland County to learn more about how they got hooked. With the help of Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor John Lewis, the pair this spring analyzed the data that could affect how local officials attack the ongoing drug epidemic that has claimed hundreds of lives. The study's findings will be discussed at a forum on Wednesday.

Kocian, along with student researchers, interviewed people between 18 and 63 at the county's now-closed day reporting center, the Westmoreland County Prison and other treatment centers and meetings. The lack of a link between prescription medication and heroin use for the local survey respondents was startling to researchers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and experts, abuse of prescription medication is a risk factor for heroin use, which is cheaper and more readily available.

“We're fixing the prescription to the heroin, or we're trying to fix, ... whether it's there or not,” said Lewis, a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice. “We're not really fixing what got them to the prescription, then heroin.”

Other findings indicate that early abuse of alcohol and drugs starts a path that can lead to heroin. Nearly every survey participant — 94 percent — used marijuana at an average age of 14. About 72 percent of participants used alcohol at the same average age.

“Really, the battle needs to be fought much sooner,” Kocian said. “Earlier intervention is definitely the way to go.”

For the 45 survey participants who used alcohol and marijuana before age 15, 93 percent of them went on to use cocaine and 84 percent used heroin. Underage drinking and marijuana use were heavily connected, and nearly every person who reported using other forms of drugs started with alcohol and marijuana at a young age, according to the results.

“It just seems like they start down a really horrible path for whatever reason,” Lewis said. “It goes to the age they started.”

“The earlier age you see that abuse ... you're starting down this path and something has to disrupt you off that pathway,” Lewis said. “Looking at the data, there's something happening really, really young that kids are looking to self-medicate.”

County detective Tony Marcocci said parents need to get more involved.

“Parents have to be a little more diligent, I believe,” Marcocci said. “Hopefully this study will open some eyes. I really think it's something parents should look at. Parents have become so complacent with their children.”

The outcomes will affect community education efforts for him and Tim Phillips, director of the county's drug overdose task force. Both Marcocci and Phillips were surprised at the lack of a link between prescription drugs and heroin use.

“I'm hoping it's going to be an agent of change,” Phillips said. “We want to be smart and obviously, the way we have been proceeding hasn't been working real well.”

Treatment should focus on the root problem, not specific drugs, Lewis and Kocian agreed. Researchers did not find any connection between gender or stress level with drug use.

“I think sometimes we focus too much on the specific drug,” Phillips said. “The drug's only the symptom of the underlying addiction.”

But they did find that people who were court-ordered to get into treatment found it was “worthless,” Lewis said. However, when they voluntarily got into treatment, the outcome was better.

Kocian and Lewis are planning a follow-up study.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@tribweb.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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