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Statistics show devastating expanse of Pa. heroin issue

Megan Guza
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Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County, advocates for more robust treatment programs to deal with heroin and opiate addiction while testifying at a 2015 hearing at The Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Dr. Capretto lost his battle with bladder cancer on Saturday, June 9, 2018.

Pennsylvanians' addiction to heroin is the biggest drug problem in the state, a fact revealed not only in death statistics but also in state police drug busts.

Pennsylvania State Police seized four times as much heroin in the second quarter of the year as they did the first, according to numbers released Tuesday. They seized more than 80 pounds of heroin worth more than $27 million between April and June, compared to just over 21 pounds between January and March.

That's more than 100 pounds in six months.

State police seized about 90 pounds of heroin during the first six months of 2014 and 68 pounds during the entire year of 2013.

Trooper Adam Reed, a state police spokesman, said the increase is a good thing.

“We have recognized heroin as the No. 1 drug problem facing Pennsylvania,” Reed said. “We have put more emphasis on finding dangerous drugs, such as heroin, before they hit our streets.”

He said police have increased efforts to complete and close ongoing heroin investigations.

“We hope to see these numbers continue to rise,” he said.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton said the rise in seizures signals more aggressive policing as well as the scope of the epidemic.

“We're giving no quarter in our efforts,” he said. “It's killing people. So we're working really hard, prosecuting really aggressively and investigating thoroughly.”

Allegheny County had 303 overdose deaths in 2014, according to the state coroners association. Forty percent of those overdoses were from illegal drugs, which include heroin and cocaine. Westmoreland County had 87 overdose deaths, with 33 in both Washington and Butler counties. Five counties, including Allegheny, had overdose deaths higher than 100. Only Philadelphia had more than Allegheny, with 611.

In April, two county residents died in what police called the largest wave of heroin overdoses in a year; 10 people survived when paramedics administered Narcan, a drug that reverses the drug's deadly effects.

The Department of Justice has a strong partnership with state police because “the highways are the byways of drug trafficking,” Hickton said.

The department also partners with police in communities near highway intersections, he said. For example, there is a partnership with police in Erie, where Interstates 79 and 90 intersect, as well as in Washington County where Interstates 79 and 70 meet, with I-76 nearby.

Western Pennsylvania arrests in the past week include a McKeesport man arrested for the second time in one month on multiple charges, including heroin possession. He was found July 7 with 71 packets of the drug and on Tuesday with 45.

On Friday, a Penn Hills woman was pulled over in Westmoreland County and found to have 2,000 bricks of heroin in the car — about $1 million worth of the drug.

On Thursday, a Jeannette man was arrested after police conducted a series of controlled heroin purchases at his home. The same day, a McKees Rocks man and a Forest Hills woman were charged in a bust in Altoona.

Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said that while he did not have access to statistics, the drug remains a problem.

“There has not been any decrease in the number of heroin arrests,” he said. “That's for sure.”

Hickton noted that as the number of people with prescription opioids continues to rise, so does the number of people on heroin; prescription painkillers often act as a gateway drug. When people can no longer afford the painkiller, they turn to heroin.

“And once they get addicted, they're on the pathway to hell,” Hickton said.

Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or [email protected].

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