Suburbia's Now the Opioid Front Line

By Jennifer Matesa 10/05/11

Southwest Pennsylvania's suburbs are taking a heavy hit, with residents often moving from pain pills to heroin.

The suburbs of West Pa. Photo via

Rates of opioid abuse and overdoses are skyrocketing in southwest Pennsylvania, particularly in the suburbs, as people who become addicted to strong painkillers turn to cheaper heroin and mix it with benzos. The suburbanization of Pennsylvania's problem echoes what's been noted in other areas of the country like Chicago. “The trend is unbelievable with what we’ve seen here,” Holly Martin, a psychologist and COO of Greenbriar Treatment Center in Washington, Pa., told The Fix. “We have more heroin and opioid addicts in treatment than ever before. Ten years ago, about three percent were opioid admissions, and now it’s almost 50 percent.” Greenbriar draws patients from the entire southwestern part of the state, Martin said, and many opioid addicts are kids from wealthy suburbs who begin by pilfering leftover drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets. It used to be Vicodin and Percocet, according to Neil Capretto, D.O., medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa., based about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, “but now we have Opana. It just came out in the last two years, and it’s been skyrocketing on the streets in the last three to six months.” Per milligram, Opana (generic name oxymorphone) is about three times as strong as OxyContin, Capretto told The Fix. A common dose is 40mg, he said, equivalent to at least 100mg of OxyContin, but “I saw a guy yesterday who averages five or six of those a day.” Martin told us she knew of at least four recent deaths due to people mixing Opana with Xanax. And most kids don’t know better: “They think Opana is the same as Oxy,” said Martin. “The kids are taking the pills, then what happens is they run out, and they get sick, so they try to buy the drug from other people at school. When that runs out, they turn to heroin. You pay 80 bucks or more for one Oxy on the street, and what are you gonna pay for a bag of heroin? Nothing, compared to that. I tell parents, ‘Don’t have that stuff in the house. When you’re done with a script, get rid of it. And not every pain needs to be medicated immediately.’”

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.