Panel discusses rise in heroin-related deaths


Pennsylvania is facing a “public health and criminal justice crisis,” David Hickton, the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, said, stemming from a rise in heroin use.

On Tuesday night, PublicSource, a Pennsylvania-based news agency, brought together a team of five members of law enforcement, rehabilitation counselors and medical professionals to educate Pennsylvanians on the heroin overdose crisis. About 80 people attended the panel, which took place at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts on Fifth Avenue. 

According to Hickton, who served as a panelist, a person dies every day in Pennsylvania from a heroin overdose. There were roughly 236 heroin deaths in Pennsylvania in 2014, he said. From 2009 to 2013, Pennsylvania experienced 490 heroin deaths in total, according to the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association.

Karl Williams, chief medical examiner of Allegheny County, who also served as a panelist, said heroin use and addiction cross all boundaries of identity. 

There were 27 heroin-only deaths in Allegheny County in 2013, according to the Pennslyvania State Coroners Association.

Users are commonly stereotyped as coming from low-income regions, but Wilson said this is often not the case. 

Two of the panelists, Mike Krafick, a certified recovery specialist, and Reverend Keith Kaufold, director of the 8th Avenue Place Community Center, come from middle-class backgrounds and struggled with addiction. 

“When looking at drug issues, everyone focuses on death, but that is the tip of the iceberg,” Williams said. 

Hickton said the criminal justice system cannnot solve the problem, and the solution begins with prevention. 

According to Hickton, while legal administrators encourage law enforcement officers to take users off of the streets, law enforcement must work with drug-infested communities. Working together, Hickton said, police officers and government officials can prevent a new generation of users and dealers, while helping current users through their recovery.

“Addiction is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual condition,” Neil Capretto, the medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation, said. “Addiction tricks the brain into thinking that they must use in order to survive.”

However, Krafick said addicts seeking treatment find that rehabilitation does not cure all problems, especially for those in recovery looking for jobs.

“Recovering addicts are facing problems because of holes in a resumé or a criminal record,” Krafick said. 

Many jobs also require a valid driver’s license, which, because of possession laws, recovering addicts often do not have.

“Regardless of whether the possession of drugs was in a car or not, drug users will find themselves with a suspended license,” Hickton said.

Drug users looking to cure their addictions with medication often turn to recovery drugs.

But Capretto said recovery drugs, which are meant to relieve withdrawal symptoms, often hurt more than help.

“The withdrawal of drugs to get clean are usually worse than heroin withdrawal,” Capretto said. “Our health system focuses on easy fixes [rather than recovery].” 

After an audience member asked him about withdrawal, Capretto said the biggest hurdle in recovery is motivation.

But panelist Rebecca Perkovich, whose son died of a heroin overdose, causing her to join the Blairsville Support Group Against Drugs, had a different answer to the same question.

“If there was one thing I could go back and change, it was educating myself,” Perkovich said. “I was having others tell me what to do, when I should have educated myself.” 

Perkovich runs a program called a “Reality Tour,” which works to expose families to the realities of addiction and eventual death of drug users through acted-out mini-scenes displaying the effects of addiction .

The tours, Perkovich said, open up communication between parents and children about drugs. 

“The more they talked about this, the less shamed people are to talk about addiction and recovery,” Perkovich said. 

After the tour, Perkovich speaks with the families personally, referencing her own son’s overdose and death.

Beyond self-education, there are other veins of hope for tackling drug addiction, Hickton said. 

The Pennsylvanian Congress passed Act 139, called The Good Samaritan Act, in September 2014. The law provides immunity to drug users who call authorities during drug-related medical emergencies.

“Everyone is touched by [drugs],” Hickton said. “Eliminating stigma, while keeping up enforcement, is the key to solving the crisis.”