Spangler Subaru Blog

                In early February 2016, with a seemingly early spring creeping up over the horizon and waking up the sleepy residents of a small rustic, town, 20 individuals were rushed to the emergency room. Their injuries were all from a similar device, although this was not from a mill explosion, nor from a mine collapse, and not even from a rogue equipment truck. These patients were all treated for the same exact problem: overdose from heroin.

                The heroin epidemic had been slowly on the uptick for many residents, and it was a concern that a good many individuals already held high. However, this spike in overdoses, which occurred over a two day period, sent waves throughout the community, and in a matter of days the concern over heroin use had become the pinnacle of every resident’s concern. The safe abodes of ordinary people were being infiltrated, not by knife wielding robbers or masked intruders with hockey sticks, but by the clandestine transportation of drugs by dealers, and slipped surreptitiously into the pockets of users.

                Why do these users begin using heroin? Where is the attractiveness when there is so much information out there on how destructive the drug is? Before this question can be answered it is first important to understand what heroin is. Heroin comes from the opiate family which is derived from the opium poppy. Opium itself has been around nearly since the beginning of Homo sapiens existence, originating as far back as Lower Mesopotamia in 3400 BCE. It became a major commodity for trade routes in China in the 1700s, and as trade grew, it would go on to be a major influence in several wars regarding trade and diplomacy. These wars, conveniently named the First Opium War and the Second Opium War, included the United Kingdom, India, France, and China.  

                During the time span covering World War II, China governments relied heavily on opium taxes as a sustainer of revenue. The commodity became popular worldwide, and the United States had entered the market in the early 1800s. In 1895, Bayer began producing a product called Heroin, an over-the-counter medicine that was competing against then popular morphine primarily as a cough suppressant. At the time, Heroin was not known to become addictive, so the brand reflected that it was not as dangerous as morphine. The scientists at Bayer had found research performed roughly 20 years prior from a scientist named C. R.  Alder Wright experimenting with morphine and various acids. Felix Hoffman, under his supervisor’s watch, was instructed to take the mechanics of that experiment and create a form of codeine. Instead, Hoffman created a compound that was more potent than the original intention, but Bayer liked it so they began selling it anyway.

                This would go on to cause controversy over several years, and in 1924 the United States officially banned the selling of the compound, which is now considered a Schedule I substance. Heroin is also known by the name diamorphine, and is illegal for any non-medical use. Today the majority of opium is produced by Afghanistan with Laos on the second rung in the output ladder.

                When opium first became popular in China, it had been used for several hundred years for medicinal purposes. However, some traders began rolling and smoking it, thus spreading as a casual use instead of just a necessary use. Eventually new, more potent compounds were found and used in both the medical setting and the recreational. That trend would continue until even today, where opium is carefully monitored by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration.

                So that brings us to the original question, why do users begin recreational use of the drug? There are a few ways to use Heroin, the most common is intravenously, but it can also be smoked or snorted. When a user “shoots up”, the drug is transferred to the brain where it reverts to morphine and meets up with opioid receptors. These receptors are responsible for the feelings of pleasure and pain, blood pressure, sexual arousal, and breathing. Endorphins create a general feeling of euphoria for the user and this state often beckons revisiting. Withdrawal from the drug can cause severe pain, including flu-like symptoms, muscle and stomach cramps, insomnia, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, and many other physiological symptoms, one reason why users tend to become addicted quickly.

                Some users become addicted because influences of some nature, whether it be friends, popular figures, or even the repetition of the “heroin addict look” (such as glassy eyes, vacant face, etc.) draw them in. They may claim they will try it only once, possibly due to peer pressure, and never go back, but as some former addicts claim, the drug pulls a person in like a new lover that person is infatuated with. A lot of these users are drawn in at younger ages, generally during high school or college. Some are lucky to get out, while others lead a life of destruction as the drug slowly decays what mental capacities and physical abilities they once had and transforms them into a waxy body, void of any enthusiasm but the desire to shoot up again.   

                Ostensibly, this does not tell the entire tale of addicts. Common stereotypes of users may consist of the notions that they come from bad homes, or they have too much stress in their lives, or even that they never would amount to anything and drug-filled lives were their destinies, no matter what. Most of these ideas are simply untrue, and studies have shown this to be the case. Painkillers such as Vicodin, codeine, and Percocet all descend from the opiate line of drugs, the same line that heroin belongs to. Many times users have had previous long-term use of prescription painkillers, in fact a report compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHA) concluded that nearly 80% of people who tried heroin for the first time also had a history of prescription painkiller abuse.

                Many times when a patient is under long-term medical care for an injury, they are prescribed a daily regimen of pills that includes an opiate to suppress pain. When the rehabilitation is complete, and doctors remove the patient cold-turkey, that patient exude signs of withdrawal because they had been addicted, and where does the patient go to quell those withdrawal symptoms? The easiest path they can find, which is often times heroin. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 259 million prescriptions for prescription painkillers were written that year in the United States. For the unfamiliar, the total population in the United States that year was 314 million. The majority of people addicted to heroin were not walked into it by the typical stereotypes; they are honest, hardworking people who were led to it because of unfortunate, medical circumstances.

                This is exactly why, at the beginning of 2017, Johnstown’s then-acting Chief of Police Jeff Janciga wanted to specifically go after the dealers. The Johnstown Police Department and the Cambria County Drug Coalition are working with several organizations, including the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, the Cambria County Drug Task Force, and the Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control, to both make it difficult for drug dealers and crack down on the ones in our communities right now distributing illegal substances. They are working covert missions, such as buying drugs undercover, in order to identify the targets and make the proper arrests that will lead to prosecutions.

                Gary Martin of Crime Stoppers is also a fervent supporter of curbing and ending the heroin epidemic. Crime Stoppers has been pivotal in the past few years investigating local crimes and bringing resolution by arresting individuals engaging in criminal activity. The organization has a program called Push Out the Pusher, which exclusively deals with illegal drug activity. Reporters are encouraged to make anonymous phone calls detailing suspected criminal behavior, and they can be rewarded up to $5,000 through the Push Out the Pusher program. Since July 2014, this program has led to over 400 arrests. In order to make a tip, call the hotline at 1-800-574-7500.

                The largest contributor to fighting the heroin epidemic in Johnstown, however, is the Cambria County Drug Coalition (CCDC). Established in September 2016, the organization’s goals are to “eliminate overdose deaths, reduce illegal drug use, expand prevention efforts, address treatment options for those whose are addicted, and reduce crime. The overall goal of the organization is to decrease the amount of drug use and, invariably, lead to drug free communities.  

                Ronna Yablonkski, the executive director, has taken all courses of action to ensure that the CCDC is not just an organization that only obtain few results. In its infantile stages, Ronna has put in place several measures that will surely lead to a results driven campaign. For example, the CCDC has paired up with Technical Assistance Center from Pittsburgh University who will help draft the strategic plan and use certain data points to increase the efficacy of the plan. The members at the TAC are experts in implementing and evaluating plans regarding campaigns related to drug use, and they use specific data pulled from similar operations in various models used across Pennsylvania.

                Only a year into the implementation and Cambria County is already seeing results. Deaths as a result of overdose in 2016 numbered at 94, while in 2017 the tally was 87. It may not be a huge improvement, but overdoses in the US have climbed 30% in 2017. Deaths as a result of overdose have yet to be fully calculated for the year, but the county is seeing an improvement. Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees credits the availability of Narcan in saving lives.

                Spangler Subaru has been partnering with Forever Media and other local businesses to spread awareness of the epidemic and the available resources at the Cambria County Drug Coalition. The organization provides education and support programs, events with the community to include collecting expired and no longer used medication, and partners with local agencies to provide treatment for addicts. Information can be found on their website.

                You can also find more information and find out how to donate at Forever Media’s website.

Categories: Community Events, People, Other


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