SALTSBURG — On one front, this is where the war against drugs is being fought locally: in fire halls and school auditoriums and community centers, one assembly, one gathering at a time.
The message, from the officials slogging away to deliver it, is the same: Addiction is a problem that touches all of society, either indirectly or directly. And it does not discriminate — rich or poor, young or old, educated or uneducated, it doesn’t matter.
“It affects us all,” said Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty. “This is a community problem.”
His comments came during a panel discussion Tuesday at Saltsburg High School. The discussion was another installment of his office’s occasional drug information panels that began in 2011 as a way to engage, and to teach, the community about the problem.
Aside from Dougherty, the audience heard from local officials, addiction treatment specialists, a federal agent and two mothers whose sons have died from heroin overdoses. They also heard from county Detective Dave Rostis, who leads the Indiana County Drug Task Force.
Rostis said that for years officials were able to keep the heroin demon out of the county, and marijuana perhaps was the biggest problem they were combating.
But now, he said, the floodgates have opened.
“It’s overtaken us,” he said.
Case in point: One probation officer has had 10 clients who have died of overdoses or who have been killed as a result of their involvement in the drug trade, he said.
Tuesday’s panel discussion came about as a result of a collaboration with the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District. Assistant Superintendent Ian Magness was looking for a way to introduce the district to a short but powerful film about a young man’s heroin addiction and his resulting death.
The film’s narrative centers on Hempfield Area High School senior Jonathan Morelli, who died of an overdose on Feb. 6, 2013. The film was commissioned by his mother, Rachele Morelli, who sat on the panel Tuesday.
The film opens at Morelli’s grave. It’s a haunting image and it’s interspersed with video clips from when he was alive.
Later in the film, the audience learns that her son had been suffering from depression, and when he broke a wrist, requiring surgery, doctors prescribed Vicodin for the pain. He quickly found it also eased the pain of depression.
In rapid-fire manner, Morelli says in the film that the addiction progresses from Vicodin to OxyContin and then to heroin.
“This led to his death,” she states.
She said addiction is a powerful brain disease, and one that addicts need help and support to overcome.
“They cannot fight this themselves,” she said.
The audience also heard from Blairsville resident Karen McMillan, whose son Corey died on Feb. 3, 2013, of a heroin overdose.
McMillan stressed to the audience that addiction can strike any family, regardless of background and upbringing. She, in fact, said she had believed it was problem that could not, would not, ever affect one of her children.
But it did, she said.