U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh discusses how to solve heroin epidemic
The next step to fighting the opioid addiction exploding through southwestern Pennsylvania is civic involvement, an assistant U.S. attorney from Pittsburgh told a crowd gathered in Upper St. Clair to discuss the issue.
“The real frontier is finding civic solutions to help mentor and guide addicts,” said Conor Lamb, who prosecutes drug crimes for the Department of Justice’s Western District of Pennsylvania.
During his May 10 presentation at Upper St. Clair’s Boyce-Mayview Rec Center was organized by the township’s Youth Steering Committee, Lamb explained how this recent epidemic began and how his office is fighting it. In 2016, Allegheny County had 613 overdose deaths, up from 234 in 2008, he said.
“The problem is not getting better, it’s getting worse,” Lamb said. “It’s really exploded over the last several years.”
More than 60 percent of last year’s overdose victims in Allegheny County had fentanyl in their system. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is significantly more potent than heroin, he said.
Someone who has abused a prescription opioid is 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin, Lamb said. OxyContin typically sells for $1 a gram, which is $30 a pill, while a bag of heroin is much cheaper at $5-$7 a bag, he said.
That has caused his office to fight drug dealers on a number of fronts. Federal prosecutors use wiretapping laws to determine when dealers will be in possession of large amounts of drugs because the more drugs they are caught with, the longer their sentence.
His office has started fighting drug dealers by charging them in connection with overdose deaths.
“That takes a special set of circumstances,” he said, because they have to prove the person died from the heroin that a dealer sold to them.
In the best-case scenario, they can work those charges up the drug supply chain, he said.
The office also prosecutes doctors who illegally give prescriptions for pain medication. However, those cases can be hard because the prosecution has to prove that the doctor distributed the drug and that there was no legitimate need for it, Lamb said.
Pennsylvania has started a database to track prescriptions given by doctors. That helps his office know which doctors to investigate, Lamb said.
Lynn Boucek, a nurse practitioner who is on the steering committee, also said the monitoring program has been helpful. At her clinic, when someone comes in to ask for pain medication, she can check the database to see when they last received a prescription.
“We tell people no now. We have less people coming in (for pain medication),” she said.
However, she added that some of them are getting heroin since they cannot legally get prescription opioids. Her clinic does offer information about outpatient and inpatient treatment, she said.
“But beds are hard to get,” Boucek said.
Gary Seech, regional director of operations for the treatment facility Glenbeigh and chairman of the steering committee, praised Lamb’s presentation.
“He captured all of the key points – to how we got here, the challenges we face and some practical responses to help individuals,” Seech said. “Families are desperate. I’ve been in the field for 30 years and I have never seen it worse than right now.”
He agreed that civic engagement is the next step in the process.
“It’s a disease of isolation and anonymity,” he said. “Reaching out is so important.”