Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Rampant rise of heroin focus of House panel hearing

by The Indiana Gazette on October 10, 2013 11:00 AM

GREENSBURG — Crime in Indiana County has risen over the last five years, and heroin and other opiate abuse are “almost single-handedly” to blame, District Attorney Patrick Dougherty testified before a state House subcommittee on Wednesday.

“These crimes don’t just show up as drug act violations, they show up as thefts, home invasions, burglaries and robberies, retail thefts and DUIs, just to name a few,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty was one of several district attorneys, representatives of law enforcement agencies and recovering addicts from around the region who testified before the crime and corrections subcommittee about the state’s heroin problem.

The hearing, the first of three, was held in Hempfield Township, Westmoreland County.

“My hope for this hearing was for the committee to gain a better understanding of the drug trade that is so destructive to so many, an understanding of how it works — how illegal drugs are getting into our communities and how law enforcement and the courts are attempting to deal with it,” subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont, said in a statement.

Dougherty told the committee that in the past cocaine and marijuana were the primary drugs of choice in Indiana County. But that has changed.

“Over the last five years, 80 percent of our resources expended deal with heroin prosecutions,” he said.

Dougherty said there has been a significant increase in the number of people suffering from heroin addictions who were sent to inpatient treatment facilities by the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug & Alcohol Commission. He said that in 2001 and 2002, the commission referred 20 people with heroin addictions to inpatient treatment facilities. In 2012 and 2013, the commission has so far referred 289 people suffering from heroin addictions to inpatient treatment.

He also said that most of the people who participate in the county’s drug treatment court — 93 percent — are battling an opiate addiction. The drug treatment court is a special judicial program that emphasizes rehabilitation over incarceration for offenders.

Dougherty said he believes part of the problem arises when people are put on painkillers for legitimate purposes and become addicted. Then, when the prescriptions run out, they begin buying pills on the black market.

But the pills are expensive — 10 cost $300 — so they turn to the cheaper and more accessible alternative, heroin.

Dougherty called upon the Legislature to adopt a bill establishing a prescription drug database, which would allow prescribers and pharmacists to share information on what controlled substances people are taking. That, he said, would cut down on doctor and pharmacy shopping.

He also said the penalties related to misuse of opiate prescription drugs should mirror that of penalties involving heroin because many times the amount of prescription medications is as potent as heroin.

Additionally, Dougherty pressed the state to restore funding for drug task forces.

“As I sit here today, heroin is running rampant while our resources have been cut dramatically,” he said.

He said that in 1992, the county drug task force received almost $108,000 in funding. Today the number has dropped to around $70,000, he said.

“Funding needs increased to fight this battle for overtime funds and evidence procurement,” he said, adding that resources need to be allocated so counties can work together as trafficking rings often stretch across multiple jurisdictions.

“When we work together we get great results,” he said.

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