Heroin

AP Photo/Don Ryan, File

Heroin abuse has been on the rise in America, killing hundreds in Allegheny County last year. Public safety and public health officials are scratching their heads for a solution as nothing seems to be slowing down the drug.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center, said he’s watched the numbers grow.

“In 1985 there were 22 drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County," Capretto said. "Last year 2014, the count is already up to 299, they’re still working on those numbers. It’s probably going to be somewhat higher, and the vast majority of those are prescription medicine and heroin."

PA Law Prohibits Needle Exchanges That Can Save Lives

May 10, 2015
Connor Mulvaney / PublicSource

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians crave daily injections of heroin. Beyond the threat of overdose is the threat of being exposed to HIV and hepatitis C, both deadly and expensive illnesses that are easily spread through contaminated needles.

But in Pennsylvania, distributing sterile syringes is a criminal act.

How Accurate Are State Heroin Overdose Statistics?

Apr 9, 2015
Ben Allen / WITF

Heroin abuse has reached crisis levels in the commonwealth and across the Northeast.

But determining the full scope of the problem is proving harder than one might think.

Pennsylvania State Police will now carry the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone in their cruisers.

In Pennsylvania, heroin and prescription drug abuse is the leading cause of accidental death, killing more people each year than motor vehicle accidents. In 2014, state police investigated 183 overdose deaths and 126 non-fatal overdoses, according to Gary Tennis, acting secretary of the Department of Drug and alcohol Programs.

Punchy Judy / Flickr

In 2014, heroin addiction and overdose deaths became an epidemic across the country, across the state of Pennsylvania and especially in Allegheny County.

Dr. Neil Capretto, Medical Director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center says the high rate of overdoses in southwest PA can be tied to use of prescription medicines, along with a blue collar and aging demographic.

"There was a need for pain medicines and doctor's started prescribing it and pharmaceutical companies started marketing to doctors heavily. And they were giving the message, 'This is safe, not addicting. Less than one percent of people who ever use Oxicodon ever have a problem.' That was the message from the companies. So there was a lot of prescription medicines, very heavy in our community. Then thousands of people in every town from Kittanning, to Downtown Pittsburgh, to Clarion, to Washington PA got hooked onto prescription medicines, and that led to the heroine problem."

Capretto explains that as an addiction to legal prescription opiates develops, heroin emerges as a cheaper alternative, once refills run out. But addiction is not simply about the relief of physical pain.

Capretto says he considers addiction to be a biological, psychological, social, and even spiritual disease. 

"Opioids are very good at stopping and blocking pain; physical pain, emotional pain, psychic pain... I've talked with thousands of people with addiction over the years and I never met one who started using any drug because they wanted to intentionally add more problems to their life on purpose. They're trying to solve some problem, block some pain." 

A Coordinated Effort to Cover the Complexities of Heroin Addiction

As news of the increasing number of heroin overdoses has made headlines throughout Pennsylvania, newsrooms are making a coordinated effort to cover the most important angles of this public health crisis.

Sharon Walsh, editor of the investigative journalism organization PublicSource, has been compiling the work of PA media outlets that have been reporting on the heroin problem.

Agency Battling Drug Crisis Has a Big Job, But Little State Money

Jan 12, 2015

If officials are tuned in to the statewide heroin crisis that has killed thousands of Pennsylvanians, they apparently think it’s a cheap fix.

After six years of inaction, in 2010 the Pennsylvania General Assembly created the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, formerly a modest bureau tucked into the Department of Health.

Then they piled on a huge workload and gave it little money.

Holly: One Face of the National Heroin Crisis

Nov 24, 2014
Connor Mulvaney / PublicSource

For Holly Wright, heroin was bliss.

It was cheap, and it was everywhere. She craved the rush of energy that came with the high, but soon she needed the drug just to get out of bed and feed her children without feeling dopesick.

But last year, she was confronted with a choice. She could keep her addiction and lose Dani, then 2, and her older brother Brayden, then 6. Or she could get treatment and start clean with her family.

By then, heroin had already taken her job and her money. And she didn’t realize the damage it had done to her children.

A comprehensive and rational drug policy in Pennsylvania may be elusive for some time, warns one academic.

State lawmakers have considered a few different remedies to the spiking rates of heroin overdoses in Pennsylvania. In the next few weeks, they'll turn their attention to the abundance of painkillers. If abused, such opioids can turn people on to heroin.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Heroin and prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels in western Pennsylvania and across the nation, according to U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania David Hickton. His U.S. Attorney’s Working Group on Drug Overdoses and Addiction has released a report outlining the problem and making recommendations to combat it going forward. The main goal of the group is to reduce overdose deaths.

Heroin use has been on the rise across the U.S. since 2007, with more than 660,000 admitted users between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In one week last January, 22 people in western Pennsylvania died of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl.

To combat deaths caused by heroin and other narcotic overdoses, the Pitcairn Police Department is partnering with Forbes Hospital to train and equip officers to administer opioid “antidote,” Narcan.

When it comes to prescribing pain medications for patients with chronic diseases, Pennsylvania is doing OK – but could be doing better.

That’s according to the 2013 "Achieving Balance in State Pain Policy: A Progress Report Card," which gave the commonwealth a “B” grade.

The report card was created by the University of Wisconsin Pain & Policy Studies Group and was funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), its Cancer Action Network (CAN) and LIVESTRONG.

Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gary Tennis, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), said that since 2000, prescription drug and heroin overdoses have quadrupled. 

Injured workers in Pennsylvania receive stronger painkillers per claim than the average state. That's according to a report released this month by the Workers Compensation Research Institute.

According to the study, the average injured Pennsylvania worker gets about 2,745 milligrams of a morphine equivalent narcotic per claim. That’s 32 to 48 percent more than workers in the average state.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is hoping a newly formed working group will be able to turn the tide of heroin overdose deaths in the Commonwealth. 

Corbett is calling for the working group, which will be chaired by Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Gary Tennis, to put a report on his desk by September.

“Yes I know that’s an aggressive time frame and I know that’s across the summer,” Corbett said.  “We don’t have the time to wait.”

A painkiller that has five to ten times more opioid than any other drug on the market was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year, and a Pennsylvania lawmaker isn’t happy.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks County) is sponsoring a bill that would regulate the use of Zohydro, a pure formulation of hydrocodone, in Pennsylvania. The drug was approved by the FDA, even though its medical board voted 11 to 2 against it.

“The FDA went over the heads of their own medical board and approved this,” DiGirolamo said.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

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.

Saying Pennsylvania is in a prescription and drug abuse crisis, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) is pushing for legislation to study and fight opioid abuse.

The Prescription Drug Abuse Act would include training for practitioners, state grants for drug abuse education, and the creation of a national registry to track opioid related deaths.

Pennsylvania has the third highest rate of heroin abuse in the U.S. and ranks 14th in drug overdose mortality, according to state Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Casey said the state’s drug abuse problem is too large to ignore.

Following the recent rash of deaths linked to heroin laced with fentanyl, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Safe and Drug-Free Children is holding a town hall Thursday night geared toward parents.

There have been 14 deaths in Allegheny County linked to the drug, with more in surrounding counties. This, along with the high-profile death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected heroin overdose, is prompting the organization to reach out to those close to people who may be vulnerable to drug addiction, particularly youth.

Heroin Addiction & the Social Stigma of Rehab

Feb 4, 2014
Wikimedia Commons

The recent rash of deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl, and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman have brought attention to the need for more efficient clinical treatment for drug addiction.

Gateway Rehab Medical Director Dr. Neil Capretto works with addicts and talked about what a relapse can mean to someone trying to conquer their dependency.

State police are still trying to track down the source of a drug that has killed as many as 23 people in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland Counties, based on data released Friday by the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office.

There have been 14 deaths in Allegheny county in which victims tested positive for both heroin and Fentanyl, a powerful analgesic used to treat cancer patients.

90.5 WESA reporter Liz Reid has been following the story and says leading up to January 24th, the County Medical Examiner saw one opiate overdose death per day, which was not considered abnormal, but he became concerned when that number jumped to 3 in one day, on Friday and 4 more that Saturday.

At least a half-dozen people have been charged by authorities in and around Pittsburgh with possessing heroin that is stamped with street names linked to drugs that investigators believe have caused 22 fatal overdoses in recent weeks.

After police had announced five previous arrests, on Thursday Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced similar charges against 39-year-old Tywon Laniel Newby of Clairton. Newby is being held at the Allegheny County Jail, unable to post $250,000 bond. No attorney was listed on court papers.

Health officials are warning that an extremely dangerous brand of heroin is making the rounds in Pittsburgh and surrounding counties.

Twenty-two people have died in the past week in western Pennsylvania from a suspected overdose of a mix of heroin and the powerful narcotic fentanyl, according to Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner says they’ve found “stamp bags” labeled with the words “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice” and “Income Tax” at the scenes of the overdoses.

Eighteen people alleged to have ties to a violent drug gang based in Wilkinsburg have been arrested in what is being called a major bust. The suspected drug dealers were taken into custody as part of a joint effort involving the PA Attorney General's Organized Crime Section and the Allegheny County Police.

The "Operation Wilkinsburg Crew" was launched, according to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in reaction to a series of homicides and shootings in Wilkinsburg believed to be related to heroin trafficking.

Police: Pa. Boy Calls 911 After Dad, Grandma OD

Mar 14, 2013

NEW BRIGHTON, Pa. — Police have charged a man and his mother with endangering a 10-year-old boy who called 911 when they passed out at home while allegedly using heroin.

The Beaver County Times reports police found both adults unresponsive when they arrived Friday evening.

Online court records don't list attorneys for 34-year-old Chad Kiser and 52-year-old Ginger Ray Foust of New Brighton. The boy is Kiser's son and Foust's grandson.