By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Problems locally with prescription drug abuse have reached “epidemic” proportions, according to both the district attorney and the coroner, and efforts to do something about it must not be missed, said a group of law enforcement officials touting their newest weapon in the war on drugs.
Four medicine-return drop boxes were secured by a state grant through District Attorney Bob Kochems office and will be ready for use Monday. Located in the police departments in Hermitage, Greenville and Grove City and the Mercer County Sheriff’s office, anyone with unused, outdated or unwanted prescription or over-the-counter medication can anonymously drop it into one of the boxes, where it will eventually be destroyed.
The boxes, which look similar to mailboxes and are mounted to concrete slabs, will be open to the public weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to start.
Statewide there are 250 drop-off boxes in 29 counties, a part of Gov. Tom Corbett’s Healthy Pennsylvania Drug Take-back initiative. The only items not accepted are needles, inhalers, aerosol cans and intravenous medications.
The goal, Kochems said, is to prevent the medication from ending up in the wrong hands, citing statistics that show most teens who begin abusing prescription drugs took the medication from a relative or friend.
“We have kids who start by stealing from Mom and Dad’s medicine cabinet and maybe Grandma’s cabinet. We arrest more people with prescription pills than we do for cocaine. Juniors and seniors in high school don’t travel in circles where cocaine is involved.
About 70 percent of those who take pain pills for a non-medical reason got them from a friend or relative,” he said.
Kochems also said environmentally the boxes are a good thing, because it prevents people from flushing unwanted medications down the toilet, where they eventually end up in the water supply. “But the real reason is that we have to take advantage of this if it can save lives.”
Part of the problem, said Sheriff Gary Hartman, is that people who start abusing pills believe they are safe, because they came from a doctor.
“They get a sense that it’s somehow cleaner or safer than other drugs,” he said. Pills are a segue to heroin, he added.
Before long pill addicts have difficulty financing a daily habit, Kochems said, and they turn to crime, usually theft, to support their habit. And soon after, he said, they turn to heroin, because it’s much cheaper.
“A pain pill on the street is about a dollar a milligram. An 80 mg Oxycontin costs at least $80, maybe more. Now here’s heroin, which produces the same effect, for about five dollars a bag,” he said.
There are multiple reasons why heroin and prescription medication abuse lead to overdoses, but as far as Kochems is concerned, “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Heroin has been in the news the last several days after the death of celebrity Philip Seymour Hoffman, who police said was found dead in his New York City apartment with a syringe still stuck in his arm and bags of heroin around him.
“You have no quality control with this stuff. Yeah, you can get six or eight times as much for the money and for certain you can die faster, because you have no idea what you’re getting. There’s no quality control,” Kochems said.
“You’re buying death. That’s what you’re buying,” he added.
Heroin use is on the rise in Mercer County, though none of the heroin combined with fetanyl responsible for the deaths of more than 20 people in Pittsburgh has been found here yet, he said.
Mercer County Coroner Brad McGonigle said heroin use is “rapidly spreading” throughout the county. Speaking both as the coroner and the owner of a funeral home in Sharon, he said there were 27 overdose deaths in the last year alone.
“It’s frightening, because people aren’t intimidated by the potency that these drugs possess. They put out warnings in Pittsburgh about the heroin laced with fetanyl, another strong narcotic that depresses the central nervous system and, to users, that’s a good combo,” McGonigle said.
“I had one family that lost three brothers,” he said.
Kochems said the physical properties of heroin and the body’s response to it often lead to overdose. Known as “chasing the dragon,” he said users are always trying to replicate that first euphoric high they experienced the first time they used it. “But you can’t. And so people take more and more until they die,” he said.
The drop-off boxes are one step – and a cost-effective one at that, he said – that will hopefully dissuade someone from abusing prescription drugs, turning to heroin when they can’t afford pills and eventually dying.
Hermitage Police Chief Brian Blair said on seven different occasions, usually twice a year, the city has participated in a medicine return day, which he said were wildly successful. He said statewide some 38,000 pounds of unwanted pills were collected and incinerated. Hermitage collected about 140 pounds, he said.
“The only negative feedback we had was that it was only two days a year. I get calls from people wanting to know where to dispose of this stuff. It’s a great way to address public safety and public health,” he said.
Grove City Police Chief Dean Osborne said the twice-yearly program was successful and beneficial. “There is definitely a need. There are problems countywide and Grove City is no exception. Drugs are generally the reason behind thefts and burglaries.”