After two years of declining drug overdose deaths, officials in Indiana County have seen a startling spike this year, but the reason is hard to pin down.
Overdose deaths — mainly from heroin and fentanyl — peaked at 53 in Indiana County in 2016 before falling significantly in the last two years. But through October this year, 31 people have died from drug overdoses, with more pending toxicology tests, up from 23 in all of 2018, according to Indiana County Coroner Jerry Overman Jr.
The increase comes amid an effort by officials in the county, and the region, to make nalaxone — the overdose-reversing drug commonly known as Narcan — much more widely available. More than 5,000 Narcan kits have been handed out for free, said Vince Mercuri, executive director of The Open Door, a licensed outpatient facility along Philadelphia Street in Indiana. It’s impossible to know how many lives the administration of Narcan may have saved, he said.
And it’s not just the persistent use of opiates that is causing alarm. Another startling trend officials are seeing is a sudden rise in the number of people using methamphetamine, said Megan Miller, clinical supervisor at The Open Door.
Whereas five years ago just 2 percent of The Open Door’s clients reported using meth, about 14 percent have reported doing so this year, Miller said. The agency noticed a significant uptick in clients using meth starting in 2016.
Meth is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Long-term use takes a heavy toll on the body. The high experienced from meth is very different than from opiates, and meth has a shorter withdrawal period, Miller said.
Mercuri said it’s possible that more users are realizing how deadly heroin is — especially because it’s so frequently mixed with fentanyl — and may be switching to meth. Not that using methamphetamines can be considered safer: Two of the 31 OD deaths so far this year have been from meth, Overman reported.
Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Trooper Cliff Greenfield said Indiana County has had the most meth lab discoveries in Pennsylvania this year: at least 16 through the start of fall. In 2014, there were just two.
It’s hard to tell, Greenfield said, whether the surge in busts is a result of more aggressive enforcement or simply that meth use has been on the rise. He said he suspects it’s both. Aware that use has been on the rise now for a few years, Greenfield said state troopers have become better trained on how to spot ingredients used for making meth, whether at a crime scene or on a traffic stop.
“We now know what to look for,” he said.
Almost all of the busts have involved a “one-pot” operation as opposed to a traditional meth lab, Greenfield said, which can involve as many as 30 household ingredients. Because the chief one is pseudoephedrine (found in the cold medicine Sudafed), Greenfield said pharmacies are also more vigilant now for people who purchase large quantities. All sales of Sudafed are now tracked, he said.
To avoid raising suspicion, Mercuri said, teams of addicts will assemble the ingredients — common items such as lithium batteries and nail polish remover — needed to make the drug at different stores.
Some will even have “meth cookoffs,” Mercuri said, “to see who can make the best batch,” some of whom fancy themselves as chemists.
With the rise in meth cases, officials at The Open Door have been focused on training on how to treat meth addicts. But Mercuri said the most common drugs used by of clients at the treatment center remain alcohol (66 percent), cannabis (55 percent) and opiates (47 percent).
So education of the effects of opiates remains a priority, especially because it can be so deadly.
“You don’t know what’s in it,” Greenfield said. “It’s a risk every time.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Clients of The Open Door drug and alcohol treatment center frequently say they take multiple drugs, according to self-reported data collected by the agency in the last five years. Alcohol topped the list each year. Megan Miller, clinical supervisor, pointed out the sharp rise in cocaine and cannabis use. A breakdown of clients who reported using various drugs:
Substance 2015 2019
Alcohol 54% 66%
Opiates 32% 47%
Cannabis 29% 55%
Sedatives 5% 11%
Cocaine 11% 39%