The statistics are alarming.
Prescription drugs now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined.
In 2009, drugs exceeded traffic accidents as the number one cause of death in the United States—killing 37,000 a year.
In Washington County there were two overdose deaths in 1992. In 2011, there were 55.
And what’s more: Studies indicate that 41 percent of teens think prescription drugs are “safer” than street drugs.
That’s why Canonsburg Mayor David H. Rhome, school officials, the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco and drug treatment specialists and others converged at Canon-McMillan High School Thursday: To tell students there that prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic not only on the national level, but locally, too.
The panel of specialists presented two programs at the school—one for sophomores and juniors and the second for juniors and seniors. A third session open to community members was put on Thursday night.
And the experts were clear: Messing around with prescription drugs is a dangerous thing.
District Attorney Gene Vittone told the audience that of the 3,200 criminal court cases in Washington County in 2012, 90 percent were drug-related and he noted there has been a “huge uptick” in those that involve prescription drugs.
He asked students to take away two things from the drug summit: That if they think they have a problem, to get help, and that if they or any of their friends find themselves in physical distress because of prescription drugs, to call 911.
All the ambulances, he said, are equipped with a medication that will reverse the affects of narcotics.
“You could save someone’s life,” he told them.
While experts talked about statistics, and about what drugs are most commonly abused and why—the audience became most still while a 27-year-old recovering addict introduced only as Ashley walked up to the lectern and told her story.
Her mother was a heroin addict, her father was an alcoholic and she said she never felt like she fit in—instead she sought “negative attention” by getting into fights, being disrespectful to teachers and more.
“The next thing you know I’m 13 years old and someone gave me my first Oxycontin," she said.
But that was only the beginning.
“It all started with those prescription pills,” Ashley said. “I’d go a little lower and a little lower and a little lower. I kept chiseling away until I was at the very bottom.”
After her prom, she said she jumped out of a moving car so she could go do drugs. After high school, she ran away from home, only to be date raped and pregnant.
Although she stayed clean during her pregnancy, Ashley said that by May of 2006, she had sold her car, and sleeping outside because she was trying to support a heroin habit.
“I lost everything,” she said.
She added: “The first bad decision started way before the last bad decision.”
Ashley’s story, though, ended on a positive note.
She sought help, went through recovery and now works as an addiction counselor.
But she was the first to admit that not every addict is so fortunate.
“There are a lot of people who don’t make it out of this disease,” she said. “I’m lucky to still be alive.”
But even though she’s been clean for almost 7 years, Ashley said being a recovering addict is still difficult.
As a convicted felon she said everything from finding an apartment to finding a job are challenging—adding that she’s been laughed at when trying to find housing, and that she’s been hired and fired on the same day because of her past.
Later in the program, when Warco returned from a death scene that may be an overdose, he asked the young woman to again take the stage.
The coroner then asked all those in the audience to stand up and give her a round of applause.
“She beat the odds,” he said. “She could have been one of the statistics.”
He then likened using prescription drugs to “taking a loaded gun and pointing at your head—you are playing with death.”
The summit ended with an address by Rhome, who thanked all those who came out to share their expertise and personal stories.
At that point, the floor was opened up for questions.
That’s when a young woman in the audience stood up to offer her thanks to the panel.
Prescription drug abuse, she said, had touched her life personally. Her brother, she said, is a recovering addict whose 200th day of sobriety was celebrated Thursday.
“I really want to thank you for opening our eyes,” she said.