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Prescription drugs become ‘new heroin’ in Armstrong County

Renatta Signorini

Gary DeComo saw it coming in 2007.

He held a program for doctors and got fliers for local pharmacies in an attempt to thwart its infiltration into Armstrong County.

“I said it in 2007 and this is 2010,” said Decomo, a district judge heavily involved in drug and alcohol awareness. “The police are chasing everyone down they can get for heroin, but there’s literally thousands of doses of pain relievers in the hands of legitimate users.”

Creating awareness of a problem that was predicted to exist hasn’t stopped an increase in prescription drug use during the past few years nationally and locally. The common theme in prescription drug abuse is easy access — something law enforcement has been attacking by asking those with prescriptions to keep a close eye on their pills and patches.

It’s become a “serious problem” locally, said District Attorney Scott Andreassi.

“This is our new heroin,” he said.

The figures

So far in 2010, six people have died in Armstrong County from drug overdoses, said Coroner Bob Bower. Two of those were related to prescription drugs.

However, there may have been more cases — if a person overdoses on drugs and is taken to an out-of-county hospital and dies, it is not part of Bower’s records.

“It’s hard to keep a good tally on drug deaths in Armstrong County,” he said.

The popular prescription drugs he sees when receiving toxicology reports from an overdose death include Oxycontin and Fentanyl patches. Heroin, cocaine and alcohol are commonly present as well, he said.

Bower characterized drug-related deaths in the past few years as having a “combined drug toxicity,” meaning more than one drug was found in the person’s system, including alcohol. From at least 2006 to the present, the combination included prescription drugs, he said, adding that the seven deaths in 2008 were mostly heroin- and cocaine-related.

‘Issue is access’

Problems with prescription drugs stem from the easy access of pills in a medicine cabinet or elsewhere in a home.

DeComo said users may think prescription drugs are safer, adding that some heroin addicts are first hooked on pain relievers. His annual Community Awareness Day focuses on spreading the message through schools, events and written alerts passed along by pharmacies for drugs such as Percocet, Oxycontin and Vicodin.

The alerts warn that the drugs can be highly addictive and offer ways to prevent unauthorized use.

“We took that right to the user … to make them aware to guard their prescription pain relievers,” DeComo said.

Addicts are stealing from family members, and it’s not always an entire bottle missing, Andreassi said, it can be one or two pills at a time.

“I think at the end of the day, the issue is access,” he said.

Or sometimes a prescription starts legitimately. Then the number of pills prescribed is upped or a person will “doctor shop” and receive multiple prescriptions, he said.

“Luckily, we’ve got good pharmacies who are fairly vigilant,” Andreassi said.

While awareness hasn’t been lacking locally, the problem is still here.

“You have to keep pounding away at them,” Andreassi said. “It is just as illegal to take someone else’s prescription as it is to take heroin.”

A younger generation

In the last two years, adolescent “prescription drug use has been off the charts,” said Cindy McCrea, director of ARC Manor, a Kittanning treatment facility.

“It’s not even just prescriptions, it’s anything in a medicine cabinet,” she said.

In the last several weeks, McCrea said she’s seen people using boxes of cold and cough medicines at a time, resulting in a hallucinogenic effect. Use of the decongestant Coricidin — or “triple c” — has increased dramatically, she said.

“It’s to the point that we probably need to consider it as a gateway drug,” she said.

Along with access in these cases comes another issue — age.

“They think they’re invincible,” McCrea said. “Even with these deaths occurring, they’re not seeing it as necessarily a problem.”

Prescription drug use is always a problem, McCrea said, but alcohol, heroin and opiates rank in the top two problems ARC Manor sees.

Second chance

Whether they want to be saved or not, some who overdose on drugs get another chance with the help of paramedics or hospital workers. Without that aid, there would be many more drug-related deaths for the coroner to handle.

Larry Martin, manager and paramedic with Kittanning Hose Company 6 ambulance, said about eight to 10 people this year have been assisted in a drug overdose by emergency personnel. Most of the overdoses have involved heroin, he said.

Paramedics use a medication that reverses the effects “if they’re not too far,” Martin said.

“There’s only certain types of drugs it works on,” he said.

Dr. Rod Groomes, ACMH Hospital emergency department director, said that in the past 10 years, overdoses have been a growing problem. Patients come through the hospital a couple times every month after use of usually heroin and/or prescription pills such as Vicodin or Percocet, he said.

“We see kids and we see middle-aged people,” he said. “It’s pretty sad, really.”

Many times, department personnel are able to save someone from an overdose death by using an antidote specifically for narcotics, which causes breathing to be suppressed, Groomes said.

“When you’re shooting something in your veins, you’re more likely to miscalculate the dose,” he said. “I think we’re all very concerned and very frustrated by the growth of narcotic use in Armstrong County.”

The war

It’s a never-ending, seemingly impossible fight for those who continue to see the problems.

“The community, they have to wake up,” DeComo said, adding that law enforcement can only do so much. “These problems are out there, and they have to guard their pain relievers.”

Increasing awareness, reality tours at the county jail, drug give-back days — they’re all ways to combat prescription drug abuse, but community members need to help, members of law enforcement agreed.

“I think we’ve made strides not only in alcohol but in drugs,” Bower said. “We’re winning battles, but we haven’t won the war.”

While the war rages on, the use of drugs evolves quickly, leaving investigators on the losing end of keeping up with the trends. Once a new method of ingestion is on the radar of investigators, new ones are adopted.

“These new methods of injecting drugs have become very imaginable,” Bower said. “I have to wait to learn it.”

By that time, it’s too late.

Additional Information:

The numbers

Drug overdose deaths in Armstrong County, based on information from Coroner Bob Bower:

• 2010 (to date) • 6

• 2009 • 4

• 2008 • 7

• 2007 • 2

• 2006 • 19

• 2005 • 6

• 2004 • 2

• 2003 • 3

? 2002 • 5

Additional Information:

For help

An Overdose and Suicide Integrated Support Group, or OASIS, meets the second Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. in Conference Room 2 on ACMH Hospital’s second floor. The program is a partnership between the ACMH Foundation and VNA Hospice Services.

To register, call Jolene at 724-431-3520. Registration is recommended but not required.

The group is open to residents who live inside and outside of Armstrong County.

Additional Information:

Contacts

• If you have unused prescription medication, please contact local authorities, a pharmacy or state police to determine the best method to dispose of them.

• To report suspected drug use, call the Armstrong County Task Force at 1-866-No-Drug-0 or 724-548-3317.


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