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Centre County Sees Spike in Heroin-Related Deaths

by on February 13, 2014 6:20 AM

In the wake of a high-profile Hollywood death and the dismantling of a major suspected heroin ring in Centre County, figures from the coroner's office show a spike in local heroin-related deaths.

The number of heroin-related deaths more than doubled in 2013 with seven people dying from the drug in the first eight months of the year compared to three deaths in all of 2012, according to figures obtained from the Centre County Coroner's office.

Further illustrating the recent spike, between 2009 and 2011 no more than two people died annually from heroin, with two deaths in 2009, zero in 2010 and one in 2011.

StateCollege.com requested the data following the recent death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is believed to be heroin-related, and after state and local authorities dismantled a suspected heroin ring that operated throughout Centre County.

Cathy Arbogast, assistant administrator for drug and alcohol services with Centre County, says the local increase in heroin-related deaths does not surprise her.

"I'm hearing from all sources that there is definitely an increase in heroin use," says Arbogast.

Anecdotally, she says addicts seeking treatment, first responders and parents are all reporting an increase in heroin use. Specifically, during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, heroin surpassed marijuana as the drug of choice for those who sought inpatient treatment through the county's drug and alcohol office.

The increase can be attributed to a few factors. First, heroin is more readily available locally. Second, it is cheaper than opiate prescription drugs. Often, those addicted to an opiate prescription drug will switch to heroin because it's less expensive, Arbogast says.

"For a long time, we have had cases where an individual might start on opiate medication and when they can no longer get the pills they go to heroin," she says. "They drift to heroin because it's what they can afford and it's what is available."

Earlier this month, the Attorney General's drug unit, along with local police, announced the arrest of at least 19 suspects who were allegedly involved in a heroin ring that operated throughout Centre and Lycoming counties.

Arbogast says if authorities make enough dealer arrests it could result in more addicts seeking treatment. She says her office needs to be ready for a related increase in demand for services.

"It will be interesting to see, if dealers continue to be arrested, if that cuts off supply and if we see an increase in those seeking treatment," she says.

Also bringing heroin to the forefront is the recent death of Hoffman. Arbogast says the death of Hoffman illustrates the fact that despite decades of sobriety, an addict is never cured.

"Someone who can have a lot of years of sobriety is still faced with the daily challenge," she says.

In terms of addressing the issue locally, Arbogast says the key is having resources available, starting with prevention and education to keep folks from even trying the drug. Additionally, she says it's critical for addicts to have resources and support in their recovery, starting with having their basic needs met, such as food and housing. Authorities also need to keep making arrests to address supply and availability.

Finally, she says it is important for the community to take a stand on the issue, similar to how the community has taken action to show it does not support State Patty's Day – an event that promotes binge drinking in State College.

"Anytime you tackle a problem like this you have to have resources on every front," says Arbogast.

The Drug and Alcohol office with the Human Services Department is a county-administered program responsible for identifying, evaluating, and treating individuals with a drug or alcohol problem. Through caseworkers, the office connects alcohol and drug abusers with the services they need.

The office has funding available to help those who need treatment, but do not have health insurance or the financial means to pay for services. The Drug and Alcohol office can be reached at 814-355-6744.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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