Pubdate: Mon, 09 Feb 2015
Source: Pottstown Mercury (PA)
Copyright: 2015 The Mercury, a Journal Register Property
Author: Michael N. Price


While heroin continues to claim lives at an alarming rate, officials 
said prescription drugs now cause more deaths than all illegal street 
drugs combined.

The war on drugs may be best known for the law enforcement's fight 
against the illegal drug trade, but these days another battle is 
waging against the rising death toll caused by fatal overdoses.

Local law enforcement officials continue to raise the alarm about the 
constant loss of life that has struck communities across the country, 
including Chester County. Last year at least 52 people died in an 
accidental manner caused by drug use, according to statistics from 
the Chester County Coroner's Office.

While heroin continues to claim lives at an alarming rate, officials 
said prescription drugs now cause more deaths than all illegal street 
drugs combined. Even more telling, drug overdoses have eclipsed 
automobile accidents as the number one cause of injury death in the 
United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and 
Prevention (CDC).

Though a steady demand for both legal and illegal drugs certainly 
drives the market, an ever-increasing supply of prescription 
medication is starting to receive its own share of the blame.

Doctors continue to prescribe Oxycodone, a leading culprit in fatal 
drug overdoses, at an unprecedented rate. In 1998, 11.5 tons of the 
drug were prescribed worldwide. In 2010, that figure had risen to 
122.5 tons, with the United States representing 82 percent of global 

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan, who serves as chair of 
the intelligence committee for the regional High Intensity Drug Area 
Trafficking task force (HIDTA), said the availability of potentially 
deadly prescription drugs in nearly every American home has led to a 
drastic rise in addiction rates among young people.

"From my perspective, they are over-prescribing prescription drugs, 
particularly hydrocodone and oxycodone," Hogan said.

With about 70 percent of the American population on prescription 
drugs, supply more than meets demand. Opioids like Oxycodone account 
for the majority of prescription drug deaths and are the third most 
commonly prescribed drug type in the country behind antibiotics and 

The deadly problem is not just a local one; 46 people die in the 
United States every day from overdoses on prescription painkillers 
alone, according to the CDC. In 2012, Americans filled 259 million 
prescriptions for painkillers, enough for every adult in the country 
to have their own bottle of pills.

"Across the country and the Commonwealth, we have seen a sharp rise 
in prescriptions for opioids like Oxycodone in the past decade," 
Hogan said. "At the same time, we have seen a spike in addiction and 
overdoses related to these drugs. Although most doctors are 
prescribing such drugs appropriately, there are a certain number of 
doctors who are over-prescribing this class of medication."

That problem is exacerbated by the Philadelphia region's significance 
in the heroin trafficking trade, law enforcement officials said. 
According to information from HIDTA, a task force comprised of local, 
state, and federal law enforcement agencies, heroin continues to rank 
as the top drug threat for southeastern Pennsylvania. Prescription 
drugs ranked second, followed by cocaine, crack-cocaine, and marijuana.

Addiction to prescription opioids goes hand in hand with the rising 
rates in heroin use, officials say. While many users develop an 
addiction by taking prescription pills found in the home, once the 
supply runs out the need for a fix remains.

With Oxycodone demanding $20 to $30 a pill on the street, many users 
are forced to turn to heroin, which provides a similar high at a 
fraction of the cost, to feed the habit. Law enforcement officials 
say the Philadelphia region is home to some of the purest and 
cheapest heroin in the country, a problem made even worse when 
Mexican drug cartels recently discovered the process to refine "pure 
white heroin" that finds its way to southeastern Pennsylvania 
suburbs. "The Philadelphia region has some of the purest and cheapest 
heroin in the United States," Hogan said. "Now you have a whole lot 
more kids addicted, and you have a whole lot more heroin on the street."

In response to the rising death toll, law enforcement and elected 
officials have taken an aggressive approach through a number of 
public programs, including eleven prescription drug collection boxes 
that were placed at police stations and public buildings across 
Chester County in late 2013.

Last year, those boxes collected more than half a ton, 1,026 pounds, 
of unwanted prescription medication. The program, a cooperative 
effort supported by law enforcement and elected officials like State 
Rep. Becky Corbin, R155th of East Brandywine, was deemed a major 
success and could expand to include additional boxes.

While collection boxes attempt to safely dispose of medication before 
it can reach the hands of potential abusers, Pennsylvania's municipal 
law enforcement officers recently gained a tool designed to save 
lives when it matters most.

Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation that authorized police 
officers and firefighters to carry and administer Naloxone, or 
Narcan, an opioid antagonist designed to immediately revive an 
unresponsive person who is experiencing a potentially fatal drug overdose.

The program has already produced results, as the East Brandywine 
Police Department recently recorded the county's first "save" when 
police officers used the drug to revive an unresponsive patient 
earlier this month.

On Jan. 23 township police officers administered the drug after 
responding to the heroin overdose of a 23-year-old woman, who 
regained consciousness three minutes later and was admitted to an 
area hospital in stable condition.

Corbin, who supported the Naloxone legislation, praised the police 
officers' actions and the legislation that authorized them to do so.

"We gave public safety officials a new tool to battle against heroin 
addiction, and they wasted no time using this new resource to save 
lives," Corbin said. "I applaud the courageous work of the East 
Brandywine Township Police and its rapid response to a reported 
heroin overdose. Its rapid response and quick thinking kept a young 
woman from becoming yet another statistic in the deadly heroin epidemic."

The East Brandywine officers, like the majority of municipal police 
officers in Chester County, just received the training that 
authorized them to administer the drug in the past few weeks. About 
20 Tredyffrin police officers also participated in a training class 
earlier this month.

At the beginning of the training, Tredyffrin Police Superintendent 
Anthony Giaimo said the department typically responds to about 18 to 
20 overdoses a year, and three or four of those turn out to be fatal.

Tredyffrin became the 25th police department in Chester County to 
receive the training, administered by West Chester's Good Fellowship 
Ambulance Company training institute. Five more police departments 
are scheduled to receive the training, and officials hope the few 
police departments in the county that have not signed on to receive 
the training do so soon.

"We've pushed this program through a number of different agencies, 
and we've finally got it here," Giaimo said to his officers at the 
start of the training, which consisted of an instructional video and 
a practical demonstration from Ethan Trowley, who manages Good 
Fellowship's training program.

The training emphasized how widespread addiction has become, 
explaining that prescription drug overdoses now outweigh those caused 
by illegal drugs. Overall, opioid overdose deaths have tripled since 
the 1990s, the state-sponsored video said.

Police were trained on the warning signs of an opioid overdose, like 
sedation and respiratory depression, and instructed on how to 
administer a life-saving dose of Naloxone, a last-chance measure in 
the fight against addiction.

"The best way to prevent heroin or prescription painkiller overdoses 
is to help addicted persons enter recovery or, better yet, keep 
people from becoming addicted in the first place," Corbin said. "That 
said, more departments should follow East Brandywine's lead in 
getting the proper training and stocking the drug naloxone so that 
other lives can be saved."

Individuals needing help in overcoming addiction may call the Chester 
County Department of Health's Drug and Alcohol Services hotline 
between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 
1-866-286-3767. All calls are confidential. Prescription drug drop 
box locations can be identified by visiting www.RepCorbin. com and 
clicking "Prescription Drug Abuse."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom