Not so many months ago, prescription painkillers were blamed for most of the drug-related woes in Washington County, from crime to overdoses.
But, as in any economy, popularity drove up costs of illicitly obtained prescription medications such as Oxycontin, forcing addicts to find a cheaper outlet for their fix – and heroin filled the void.
Last week, members of Washington County District Attorney’s Drug Task Force arrested a couple at a Washington home after seizing 73 stamp bags of suspected heroin.
Detectives began an investigation, making several controlled buys from the two, after getting complaints of suspicious activity from residents in the area. Police said both admitted to investigators they sold the drug to support their own addictions.
When Rick Gluth, director of the task force, was a member of the state police Tactical Narcotics Team about 20 years ago, the unit was seizing kilograms of cocaine and, in lesser amounts, heroin.
“Now, heroin is going through the roof,” said Gluth, noting the task force seized 12,000 stamp bags of heroin last year.
Gluth said the price for a stamp bag of heroin is about $10, while users are paying an average of about $80 for one Oxycontin pill.
“I’ve been told by heroin addicts that heroin is more intense and that it is the best thing they have felt in their life,” Gluth said. “Now, they are using Molly or Ecstasy (both amphetamines) to enhance that feeling.”
Canonsburg police Sgt. Al Coghill said heroin is everywhere in the county.
“It is cheaper to buy and easier to get, while prescription narcotics are more expensive and becoming more difficult to find,” Coghill said. “The heroin is coming into this area from all over, including from New Jersey and Michigan. There is also some coming from a Mexican cartel.”
Gluth said the highest percentage of heroin comes from Columbia, filtered through the Mexican cartel.
“The labels on the stamp bags could be local, or they could already be placed in a labeled bag,” Gluth said.
There is no way to judge the purity of heroin, Gluth said. Several drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County earlier this year were linked to a strong strain of heroin.
“You don’t know the purity or if it has been laced,” Gluth said. “It is like playing Russian roulette. The heavier addicts are looking for a higher purity level.”
During a six-week period earlier this year, Monongahela police seized a significant amount of heroin from several suspects during traffic stops and through investigations into illicit activity. Two people were arrested after police found them with the drug as they apparently were squatting in a vacant house.
“Sometimes it is being in the right place at the right time and a little bit of luck,” said city police Chief Brian Tempest of some of the unexpected seizures. “But I have a good group of young, aggressive officers. They know what to look for during traffic stops.
“It is everywhere, in every single community,” the chief added. “Two years ago, we were talking about pain pills. But that has almost stopped. Now, it is almost all heroin. Heroin is cheaper, so they buy it.”
Every year since he took office in 1992, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco has seen an increase in deaths because of drug overdoses. Last year was a benchmark, with Warco investigating 58 deaths. Of those deaths, 27 were directly related to heroin, while three people died of a combination of heroin and Oxycontin.
“When I took office, that first year there were only two deaths from drug overdoses,” the coroner said.
Warco said the overdose deaths run the gamut of ages and social classes. The youngest to die of a heroin overdose was an 11-year-old boy several years ago. Warco said the boy’s mother was a heroin addict, and he speculated the boy was emulating what he had seen her do.
And the death toll could have been much higher if not for emergency medical responders administering the drug Narcan, which counteracts the effects of opiates such as heroin. Rodney Rohrer, manager of Ambulance and Chair Service, said the number of doses of Narcan administered by his personnel in the first five months of the year was double the amount from last year.
Both Gluth and Coghill said heroin addiction can be tied to increasing crime. Coghill said many of the arrests in Canonsburg can be linked to suspects hooked on heroin.
“Someone can be fully functional and be an addict,” Gluth said. “But stuff will start missing from around the house. A ring will be gone from the jewelry box, a chain saw missing from the shed.”
“They are the best liars,” the task force director said of heroin addicts. “They can look you right in the face and lie to you. And you believe them.”
Warco said Washington County is not alone in dealing with the heroin problem.
“Cambria County, which is in the center part of the state, really has a problem,” Warco said. “There is no end in sight.”
Warco often finds evidence of heroin use on the streets near his home in Washington, in the shadows of Washington Hospital.
“I find empty stamp bags that I turn over to the drug task force,” Warco said. “There are used syringes. It is unconscionable. Where are we going with this?”
Gluth said he can’t imagine anything worse than an addiction to heroin.
“All they think about, all that drives them, is getting that bag.”