District attorneys from across the state gathered at a Pittsburgh rehabilitation center Thursday, pushing for Senate passage of a bill they said would combat the growing heroin epidemic. That epidemic, they said, is tied directly to an increase in the abuse of prescription drugs.
“To the extent that we do a good job taking prescription drugs that shouldn’t be in peoples’ hands out of those hands, people still have that addiction, they still need that high, they almost invariably go directly to heroin. These two things are tied,” said David Freed, Cumberland County District Attorney and president of the PA District Attorneys Association.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said prescription and heroin abuse at an all-time high. Over the last decade the purity of heroin has increased, the price has decreased and it’s become more widely available.
“As addiction develops using prescription drugs, you have to make a financial determination if you’re going to continue that addiction,” said Zappala. “Today, you can actually buy a stamp bag of heroin on our street at about $5 to $7 a bag. If you want an Oxycontin pill, it’ll probably cost you about 80 bucks.”
A bill pending in the state Senate would create a prescription drug monitoring program that would be accessible by law enforcement.
“Research shows that these programs help combat drug abuse and help identify fraud, doctor shopping, forgery and improper prescribing,” said Freed. “Our existing database system is inadequate because most prescription drugs are not included, despite the fact that most prescription drugs are included in monitoring programs in virtually every state.”
Under the bill, the types of controlled substances being monitored would increase and law enforcement could access the information if they have “reasonable suspicion” of abuse and by obtaining a court order. A similar bill was passed in the House last year. Freed said privacy concerns have delayed its progress.
“This is not a fishing expedition,” he said. “This is not simply going in and trolling a database to see if we can find a person who is getting hundreds and hundreds of pills at one time. We have to have that reasonable suspicion before we can even get in.”
Freed said this bill is critical in the fight against drug abuse, which he called an epidemic in Pennsylvania.
“We rank 14th in the country for drug overdose mortality rate, most of those overdoses involve prescription drugs, we have the third-highest rate of heroin abuse in the country,” said Freed. “Deaths from drug overdoses outnumber deaths from motor vehicles in this commonwealth.”
The prescription drug monitoring bill could come up for a vote in the Senate as early as next week.