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St. Vincent students' research spotlights difficulty of battling addiction epidemic

Joe Napsha
| Friday, April 1, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

St. Vincent College students interviewing recovering addicts for an FBI project said they've found there is no simple solution to stemming the epidemic of heroin-related deaths in Westmoreland County.

“Addiction is in almost every family,” said Samantha Harris, a 21-year-old senior from North Huntingdon, one of seven students involved in the project for the FBI's Heroin Outreach Prevention and Education Committee.

But there's no stereotypical heroin addict, according to the findings of the project led by Eric Kocian, assistant professor of criminology at St. Vincent.

“It could be a soccer mom,” said Harris, who has been interviewing addicts — some in the Westmoreland County Prison and others in Narcotics Anonymous programs — since April 2015.

The students, mostly criminology majors, recently offered a status report to high-ranking FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

The student researchers hope to interview about 170 addicts by early May and issue a report in the fall, Kocian said.

One conclusion is certain — everyone agrees that more arrests alone won't eliminate the problem.

“We want to find a point in the treatment cycle that needs adjusting to reduce overdose deaths,” said Harris, who is considering attending graduate school to work in the juvenile justice field.

On the increase

Overdose deaths are on the rise in Westmoreland County, according to statistics from the coroner's office. There were 126 drug overdoses in 2015, up from 87 in 2014. There were 56 fatal heroin overdoses in 2015, up 56 percent from 2014 and 367 percent since 2002, records show.

While many of the addicts interviewed lost friends to overdoses, many said they still used the drug, said Greensburg senior Olivia Matthews, 21.

“They think, ‘It will never happen to me,' ” Matthews said.

That point was driven home to the students when one person they interviewed for the project died from an overdose a week after they talked, Kocian said.

The students' interviews showed heroin has replaced cocaine as the drug of choice for many because it is cheap and readily available. But it is also highly addictive.

“This (heroin) is the most addictive drug ever. This makes cocaine look like candy regarding the addiction,” Kocian said.

The beginning

The researchers found that many of the addicts began with pain pills.

“We are seeing a tremendous number who started off with legal prescription pills, getting hooked on the pills and then when their prescription ran out, they turned to (buying) pills on the street. When that becomes too expensive to support their habit, they turn to heroin, which is cheaper,” Kocian said.

The addiction becomes so overpowering that they build a tolerance to the opioid and need more just to function, Kocian said.

FBI officials were very interested in findings showing the age of heroin users is dropping, Kocian said.

Kocian said “it is imperative that we start focusing on educating high school students, because they are a fast-growing population in experimentation.”

Misplaced stigma

Battling the social stigma attached to the drug problem also should be addressed, the students found.

“People should know it is more of a disease than a choice,” Kocian said.

For those hooked on the opioid, efforts to wean them from the drugs by providing methadone pills and Suboxone that allow the addicts to function, have not worked, the interviews indicated.

Many of the heroin users said were getting methadone during the week and staying true to their recovery, only to return to their heroin habit on the weekend to avoid dealing with the withdrawal symptoms.

“They never truly go through the dope sickness (of heroin withdrawal),” said Matthews, who is considering law school.

“The dope sickness is the worst part of the addiction, according to our research. They always have methadone as a crutch. There is no incentive to get off the heroin,” said Matthews.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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