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Battling prescription drug trafficking an ongoing effort

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By: Jen Johnson

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- It's not a new problem, but one that deserves renewed attention. Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in Pennsylvania, leaving lawmakers and law enforcement to look for new ways to crackdown on pill popping and prescription drug trafficking.

As 6 News found out, residents are helping officials to stay one step ahead of the problem.

State statistics show the number of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased by 89 percent since 1999. Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan told 6 News that that statistics show most people's addiction to pills begin in their own medicine cabinet.

"We lock up our guns because we know they're dangerous," Callihan said. "Yet you can go in any medicine cabinet, in any home, and find prescription medication."

It's those pills leaving medicine cabinets and countertops and ending up in the wrong hands that have officials concerned.

"Some of them are gonna hit the streets. People are gonna be selling them, trying to make money off them," said Cambria County Drug Task Force Detective Kevin Price. "The addiction is going to be worse than it already is."

The addiction to pills, mainly narcotic painkillers, has also led to an alarming connection to crime.

"That's a primary motivator for burglaries, when people know that someone has a medication that's in demand, like OxyContin [and] Percocet. They're becoming a target," said Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins. "Those pills have a street value, whether it be $10, $20, $30 a pill, some even more than that."

Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser said a majority of home burglaries can be traced back to pill-related crimes.

"You can relate back nearly 80 percent of the time, when you have a home invasion, a purse snatching, a car theft, that they are looking, or they already have, the information that the person has medications in the home," Lazzari-Strasiser said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 52 percent of people over the age of 12 have popped pills. More than half of those addicted were freely given the medication from a friend or relative. Painkillers are the most abused.

What's more, in a survey, teenagers said prescription pills are their drug of choice because they're easy to get at home, they believe it's not illegal, and they believe pills are safer than illegal drugs. Price said those kids couldn't be more wrong.

"Our prescription pills and our prescription trafficking go hand in hand with heroin," Price said. "We know when there's a lot of pills on the street, there's less heroin. When there's more heroin, there's fewer pills. They will be linked together forever."

Early indicators show that a simple, statewide program has appeared to be keeping some of those pills out of the wrong hands. Drug drop-off boxes, which are scattered around the area, end up full week after week with unused medication.

"Fentanyl, Hydrocodone, some Percocets, OxyContin, of course, sort of what you read about that people sell on the streets. We are actually seeing those powerful painkillers in these boxes," Price said.

Police and prosecutors told us the drug drop-off boxes are one of the cheapest and most effective ways to get unused medication off the streets.

"You're taking that burden, that temptation, away from somebody in your house." Price said.

The drug drop-off boxes are located in a safe place, usually a police department, and are secure and virtually tamper proof.

The unwanted medication is destroyed in an environmentally friendly way through incineration. Officials said no matter the county, people have deposited hundreds and hundreds of pounds of pills into the boxes.

Officials also said dropping them into the boxes is better than flushing them down a toilet, leading to pollution in waterways.

"I know from the amount that we see and the amount that is not being consumed, somebody is over prescribing," Lazzari-Strasiser said.

Pennsylvania prosecutors are watching pending legislation that would create a prescription drug monitoring program and data base that could alert to practices of over prescribing by physicians, or what's called "doctor shopping" by addicts.

Counties must supply a quarterly report of the weight of what's recovered from each box. At the end of the year, those hard statistics will be scrutinized in Harrisburg. Lazzari-Strasiser hopes the drug drop-off boxes may also bolster legislative change.

"What I think the statistics will do is give us the information to say, 'Why are we throwing all this away?'" Lazzari-Strasiser said. "If it was medically necessary at the time, why is it not being consumed by the patient? These statistics will likely help to support the premise that the medical community needs to reconsider how much prescription meds they're dispensing."

You can only deposit pills into the drug drop-off boxes. No syringes, liquids or insulin pens should be placed inside. Authorities ask anyone to remove the pills from their packaging because it saves time going through the deposits and space in the boxes. For the best results, dump your pills into a Ziploc bag.

Click here to find a drug drop-off location in your community.

Battling prescription drug trafficking an ongoing effort


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