Task force works to tackle Washington County heroin use

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A Washington County task force is concerned that the abuse of expensive prescription drugs is driving abusers to use cheaper — and sometimes more deadly — heroin.

The panel of 10 experts, including Sen. Pat Toomey and county District Attorney Eugene Vittone, met Wednesday to develop ways to fight the problem.

Mr. Vittone said awareness and education about prescription opiates abuse could help abusers seek treatment before they resort to harder, more potent drugs. Once prescription drugs become too expensive for addicts, many will turn to heroin instead.

Sen. Toomey takes part in roundtable on drug overdoses

Sen. Pat Toomey joined other officials in Washington County for a roundtable discussion about the rising number of drug overdoses related to heroin and prescription medications. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/19/2014)

“This is emerging as a suddenly growing problem that has taken on devastating proportions,” said Mr. Toomey, a Republican.

The discussion came after a series of deaths in Western Pennsylvania in the past month from fatal batches of heroin laced with the synthetic prescription painkiller fentanyl. County Coroner Tim Warco said the combination is so potent and lethal that some of the users were found dead with syringes still in the body.

One of the initiatives emphasized at the roundtable included a prescription drug collection program, MedReturn, which allows residents to dispose of outdated prescription and over-the-counter medications without being questioned by authorities. The county has already installed 19 drug collection boxes.

David Freed of Dauphin County, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the program is a step forward in limiting dealers’ prescription drug supply. He said burglars are often looking for items they can use as drugs or valuables they can trade in for drugs and many teenagers get their supply from their parents’ medicine cabinets, so having unused and outdated drugs lying around the house can be a hazard.

“Our hope is to educate young people early to keep them away from the poison that is available on the street,” said Mr. Vittone.

Cheryl Andrews, executive director of the Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission, along with several other panelists, lobbied for the passage of “Good Samaritan legislation” statewide. The legislation is designed to protect witnesses of an overdose who call 911.

“There are people shooting dope who will literally let someone die so they won’t get prosecuted for using,” Ms. Andrews said.

Heroin is the first drug of choice in the county. The Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission had 553 heroin users seeking treatment in 2013 between the ages of 20-39, almost double the number of marijuana and alcohol users.

Locally, at least nine deaths in Pittsburgh and 14 in Allegheny County over the past month are believed to be caused by fentanyl-laced heroin.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, held a similar meeting Wednesday in Westmoreland County.

Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.

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