Understanding Local Drug Epidemic Key to Ending It

There is a drug abuse epidemic in Westmoreland County that no one should deny. For too long, everyone – families, addicts, policymakers and others – have turned a blind eye to this insidious problem. We are embarking on some important work now to better understand the crisis and take steps to resolve it.

We read the headlines seemingly everyday about another overdose death from illegal drugs, most notably heroin, as well as prescription medication. So far this year, 46 people have died from drug overdoses – and the Coroner is awaiting toxicology results from another seven deaths. This puts the county on pace for a record 110 deaths from drug overdoses in 2013, after 78 last year. That’s nearly 200 lives lost that should have been prevented.

So why is this happening?

Like so many other societal problems this one is complicated and multi-faceted. But it is time to end the anecdotal evidence, speculation and guess work. We need to find out why this crisis that spans social-economic status, geography, gender, race and age is growing. That has to be the first step.

I am part of a core group steering a countywide Drug Task Force whose first course of action is to attempt to answer that very question. We are in the midst now of performing a root cause analysis to identify the scope of the problem by essentially examining the “statistics within the statistics”. This initial effort will examine, among other factors, how many overdose victims are:

  • Involved in behavioral health treatment,
  • Involved in drug and/or alcohol treatment,
  • Suffering from serious physical health conditions,
  • Depend on prescription medication for medical conditions, and/or
  • Veterans.

The information gleaned from the root cause analysis will help the Task Force determine the best way to spend what, of course, are limited financial resources as well as to utilize the talents of a diverse group of professionals that will be part of the larger study. We expect the results of much of the analysis to be ready by September.

Already, we have learned so much to dispel the many myths about our local drug problem, thanks in large part to the fine work of the office of County Coroner Ken Bacha.

For example, it is not young people who are dying in droves. It is mostly people older than 41 who have died in the past two years – about 60 percent of the deaths.

Second, heroin is not causing most of the deaths. Though its use is on the rise because heroin is cheap and available, most of the deaths are caused by other substances, most notably prescription drugs.

Third, the problem is not new. The number of overdose deaths has been climbing steadily since 2002.

And, perhaps most significant, is that drug overdoses are not exclusive to the alleged “bad neighborhoods”. The trend is strong among the more affluent suburban areas of North Huntingdon, Hempfield, Unity and Ligonier Townships.

There are many more myths being dispelled, and no doubt there will be more as we continue our work to better comprehend the truth of the problem.

Moreover, we are exploring the feasibility of forming a specialized Drug Court in Westmoreland County’s Court of Common Pleas. What it is in essence is a combination of intense counseling, restorative justice and case management with personal oversight by a judge. There are mixed opinions from judges – both locally and nationally – about its impact on the drug epidemic, but the evidence to me definitely merits consideration in Westmoreland. I have been making my rounds speaking to county judges about its advantages and limitations. Personally, I have seen enough to want to make this happen in our county as soon as possible.

We are fortunate in Westmoreland County to have a number of folks dedicated to improving the system, making prevention education more effective and getting addicts better access to treatment. The so-called “War of Drugs” has been waged for decades, and I think we can all agree it’s been a failure. The problem of drug addiction has only grown since the “war” began despite the best efforts of many. We need to take a fresh look at everything we are doing and be opened minded to doing everything differently, or we will simply continue the downward spiral, locally and societally.

I am hopeful that our work in Westmoreland will help change the conversation and prevent more unnecessary deaths.