The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 20, 2014

Epidemic gripping state | Officials must act to counter drug abuse

The Tribune-Democrat

JOHNSTOWN — The stereotypical drug abuser has always been pictured to be a teen or young adult.

They are the targets of public service announcements – the ones urging parents to keep a closer watch on their medications, learn the warning signs of drug abuse and to seek help when it affects to their loved ones.

But county coroners have turned that image on its head.

Many of the drug abusers of today are the parents, people 40 years old and older, CNHI state reporter John Finnerty revealed in an eye-opening story last week.

Cambria County Coroner Dennis Kwiatkowski reported that his department logged almost one overdose death per week this past year, compared with only 29 deaths in 2012.

That is shocking.

And in Crawford County, in northwest corner of Pennsylvania, Coroner Scott Schell reported that deaths by drug overdose jumped from 32 in 2012 to 41 last year, a nearly 22 percent increase.

Most of the overdoses, the coroners say, are not caused by the drugs most people would assume abusers would use – heroin, cocaine and crack.

No, most of the overdoses were caused by people abusing prescription drugs.

Kwiatkowski said of the cases his office investigated, the dosages barely would be considered lethal, except that, in some cases, alcohol also was involved.

Schell reported that most of his cases involved “old hippies,” people in their 60s and 70s who have been drug users for most of their lives.

Schell’s data is plausible because we have reported many times of abusers having to turn to more potent drugs in order to achieve their highs.

State officials, however, are perplexed by the new revelation.

In 2012, the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs was formed to look into substance abuse. Its secretary, Gary Tennis, told a Senate committee recently that the agency has created guidelines for doctors to follow who were treating patients for pain. And it has created task forces to deal with overdoses.

But he also said his group’s efforts have been hampered because state agencies responsible for tracking and releasing information on fatal overdoses have not done their job, thus the data often is inadequate and unsatisfactory.

If we are to get a handle on this epidemic that is gripping the state, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, then everyone has to pull together to find solutions.

Several already have been suggested. One would be the introduction of tamper-proof prescription forms, perhaps similar to printed currency, that would make it more difficult to forge drug orders. But that has languished in a Senate committee for almost a year.

Another suggestion is a database that monitors all prescriptions so that doctors and drug stores could readily and rapidly track and identify pill-shopping abusers.

We urge our local legislators to act quickly on the proposed suggestions and not push them aside in favor of more glamorous legislation. The dark underbelly of drug abuse already is digging its tentacles into our state. Let’s not wait until it has a death grip on Pennsylvania.