Substance abuse is a problem that affects all communities, even Mt. Lebanon.
One reason those long yellow writing tablets are called legal pads is because they don’t have spiral binding. That means lawyers can take them into jails, where no metal of any kind is permitted past the door-frame sized metal detectors, the hand-held wands and the hard eyes of the correction officers.
How does a nice Mt. Lebanon grad in his 20s find himself locked up in a place where even a thin strip of notebook wire can be fashioned into a weapon?
If you swap the red jail scrubs for a suit, Don Smithfield (not his real name) could pass for one of the lawyers visiting clients in the windowless cinderblock attorney room at the Allegheny County Jail.
But Smithfield is a drug addict. He began taking prescription Ritalin and Adderall after being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at an early age.
Not every kid with ADHD turns into a heroin addict. But, says Smithfield, “It got me comfortable with taking drugs, and I liked the feeling I got from them. I liked feeling different.”
In middle school, he was the kid you could buy weed from. “I didn’t have money, so if I wanted it I had to sell it,” he says. He had heard stories about cocaine and didn’t think it was for him. “Then one time I’m over at a friend’s house and he sets up a few lines. After a while I was selling it, too,” he says. Same story with heroin, which he first tried at 21.
Smithfield has been arrested “maybe 10 times” over the past few years for possession and other drug-related offenses. He’s back in jail now for violating his probation, and is waiting for a judge to decide whether the violation is serious enough to warrant incarceration in a state prison. He has done a couple of stints in rehab facilities, but rehab never took.
“When I was inside I wanted to stop. Of course I did,” he says. “But then I got outside. The temptations were just too great. You have to understand, I had learned to deal with everything in my life this way.”
Right now Smithfield is hoping to get into another, longer lasting program, and he’s hoping this time will be the charm. “I either get into rehab, or I go upstate.”
As a former dealer, Smithfield knows that Mt. Lebanon is no different from anyplace else when it comes to teen drug use. If anything, the opportunity here may be greater than in other places, he suggests:
“Kids in Mt. Lebanon are targeted more than you might think. The dealers hear Mt. Lebanon, or other places in the South Hills, they’re thinking money.”
GETTING HOOKED/GETTING CAUGHT
In survey after survey, Mt. Lebanon residents say that in addition to the school system, the biggest reason they moved here was the first-rate public safety. Along with a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters—almost unheard of in the suburbs around here—Mt. Lebanon has, in addition to uniformed cops, an investigative unit made up of four detectives, one of whom specializes in narcotics.
Still, despite the police department’s training and commitment, curbing drug sales and drug use remains a challenge. The drugs of choice, users and scenarios change, but there’s no getting around that fact that drugs are a problem in Mt. Lebanon as they are in virtually every town across America.
MLPD’s current narcotics detective (not identified for security reasons) has been with the department for nine years, the past six in narcotics. At 32, he is close in age to many of the users and dealers he arrests. “I’m not that far removed from the craziness that goes on in high school and college,” he says. In the past nine years, he has seen an evolution in the “craziness” that leads to the cycle of addiction and often incarceration.
Testing limits and experimenting have always been part of growing up. But as the detective and other addiction specialists confirm, the familiar route to drug addiction—stealing cigarettes and liquor from parents, making some forays into illegal territory with marijuana, the occasional line of cocaine or maybe some amphetamines or barbiturates—is being replaced with a shortcut to serious addiction: prescription medications. And the users are getting younger, sometimes as young as middle school aged. Why? Because prescription meds are strong and abundant. Many of us who have had painful surgeries or orthopedic ailments have opiates such as oxycodone or oxycontin in our own bathrooms.
“A lot of the time, that’s where kids are taking their first steps, lifting a few pills from the medicine cabinet,” the detective says. “The trend right now seems to be harder drug use at a younger age.”
Eventually, if they can’t keep raiding the medicine cabinet, they’ll start buying pills—or worse still heroin—on the street. Oxycodone, oxycontin and heroin are all opioids, which work on the system in a similar fashion, but comparatively speaking, heroin is a much better bargain.
“Typically, on the street you pay anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar per milligram for prescription painkillers,” the detective says. “So a 15-milligram oxycodone pill, one pill, can cost up to $15. You can usually get a stamp bag of heroin for anywhere from $4 to $10, depending on where you get it. So $30 to $50 can get you two pills, or it can get you five or six bags of heroin.”
If someone from Mt. Lebanon wants to buy heroin, there are a couple of ways to go. The main source for all of Pittsburgh is the North Side, and the drugs are cheapest there, but the down side is, “law enforcement is going to be looking at you—you’re a suburban white kid, you’re going to stick right out on the North Side,” says the detective. The more popular choice is going to one of a few city neighborhoods just over the southern border, such as Beechview and Brookline, where it’s easier to blend in. Like any other commodity, one of the things you pay for is convenience; drugs are more expensive closer to home. Still, at $10 a bag, heroin’s about the cheapest, longest-lasting high you can find.
The detective believes the responsibility for a lot of the drug problems he encounters with juveniles and young adults lies within the home. Police officers and drug counselors often talk about the “50 dollar babysitter,” parents who slip their kids some cash and send them off not knowing who they’ll be with or where they’re going.“We see kids whose parents give them lots of money but not a lot of responsibility and too much leeway,” says the detective. “And once you get started (on drugs), it doesn’t matter why or how you got started, you’re just doing whatever you can to get the money to support the habit.
“I would say, between people selling and buying drugs, and stealing to support the habit, and the destructive behavior of intoxicated people, about 75 to 80 percent of all the crime we encounter is drug-related,” he says.
Local statistics show clearly that drug use and the problems it causes are not limited to teenagers—last year, there were 374 substance abuse related arrests in Mt. Lebanon: 288 for adults and 86 for juveniles, and in the first two weeks of January 2012, there were 10 arrests, all adults. But as Don Smithfield’s story illustrates, many teen addicts end up in the criminal system as adults, a strong argument for apprehending young users and getting them treatment.
The number of local drug-related arrests may seem shocking, but it doesn’t even tell the whole story. Because of the way crimes are categorized under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), the most serious crime a person is charged with is the one that makes its way into the statistics. So, for example, if someone is arrested for burglary, and is also in possession of illegal drugs, although the person is charged with both crimes, only the burglary will make it into the UCR.
By nature, law enforcement is largely reactive. But when it comes to drugs, the detective says police can prevent a lot of crime by having a highly visible presence in the community. The narcotics detective urges anyone-parent, child, neighbor-who knows of a drug-related situation that needs intervention to give him a call, at 412-343-4090. “It’s confidential, private, secure, I’m always willing to talk off the record, whatever,” he says.
GETTING CAUGHT/GETTING HELP
District Justice Blaise Larotonda has dealt with the repercussions of drug use his entire professional career. Larotonda is in his eighth year on the bench, following 25 years as a Mt. Lebanon police officer.He agrees with the narcotics detective that drugs and alcohol fuel the large bulk of cases that he tries.“It’s behind most of the domestic violence,” he says. “Almost all of the retail theft. It’s pretty rare that I get a criminal case that doesn’t have some drug or alcohol involvement. The South Hills is no different than anywhere else.”
Two recent high profile cases confirm that statement. Last fall, a former physician from Mt. Lebanon was charged with stealing oxycontin, other drugs and hypodermic syringes from the Lebanon Shops Pharmacy in Castle Shannon. He was charged with seven counts of robbery, two counts of firearms violations and one count each of burglary, theft, criminal mischief and drug possession in connection with the thefts. He is in the county jail awaiting trial.
In December, another Mt. Lebanon resident received a 1- to 2-year sentence in the Allegheny County Jail after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and driving under the influence in the death of Lisa Styles in 2010, after having marijuana in his system when he struck and killed Styles with his SUV as she was jogging and pushing a stroller at the intersection of Beadling and Washington roads.
Penny Howe, Austin Avenue, is familiar with both of those cases, and hundreds more. She is a drug and alcohol counselor at the Allegheny County Jail. No, that’s not quite right—she is the drug and alcohol counselor at the Allegheny County Jail. More than 2,000 inmates. One counselor. She got into the field for a very personal reason: her father was an alcoholic. “He died at 53,” she says. “I was 15.”
Larotonda has worked with Howe to get offenders into rehab programs instead of doing straight jail time whenever it’s warranted. “I don’t want to see them coming back,” he says. “Whether it’s a jail sentence, a fine, or trying to cut them a break, the main goal is to keep them from coming back.”
Sending an offender to a drug rehabilitation program has to be a legal and a clinical decision. After a decade of working at the jail, Howe has a pretty good idea of which judges will be receptive to the idea of rehab and which ones won’t. She is trying to raise awareness on the bench of the value of rehabilitation.
“When I started this job, there were just a handful of magistrates who would even consider rehab as an option,” she says. Attitudes on the bench are starting to change, but it’s a slow process.
Larotonda says that the judges’ reluctance to consider rehab is often compounded by the addicts’ behavior. He has had people come to his court impaired. “Addicts are like 5-year-olds,” he says. “When they’re caught up in the addiction, they aren’t making rational decisions.”
In many cases, Larotonda adds, the situation gets to the point where the family won’t allow the addict to come home anymore.
However heartbreaking the thought of a loved one serving jail time can be, Howe says it is sometimes the best answer. “I’ll say to parents ‘please, just leave your son or daughter with me,’” she says. “As horrible as it [jail] sounds, they’ll get three meals a day and a shower, and they’ll be away from the thing that’s harming them. After that, we can see about getting them some help.”
When rehab is ordered, Howe doesn’t just leave her clients at the gate of the facility. “I can be their best friend or their worst enemy,” she says. “I can dog them every day, get a court order, put them back in jail if they’re not serious.”
Larotonda agrees that much of the responsibility for juvenile drug and alcohol problems starts at home. He has seen families who refuse to admit their son or daughter has a problem. “Some people are just too close to the situation, and they get paralyzed, can’t, won’t do anything,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to lay into them— ‘this is your kid, this is the future!’ Sometimes the parents need parenting themselves.”
Two of the factors Larotonda says he considers in deciding how to deal with a case are the severity of the addiction and whether or not the addict has strong family support. “Beating an addiction is a very tough thing—most people don’t realize how tough,” he says, “and being able to rely on other people is a huge factor.”
Howe agrees: “Recovery is a lifelong job. You have to work at this all your life.”
GETTING HELP/GETTING OUT
Sean Boyle (not his real name) still remembers the taste of the beer he filched out of the refrigerator when he was 10. “It was awful,” he says. “I did not like it at all, but that didn’t stop me from drinking it. I stuck with it.” What he can’t remember is the blackout he had two years later from binge drinking.
“I liked how it made me feel. I chased that feeling for years.”
Boyle had already tried marijuana and cocaine by the time, in his mid-teens, a dentist prescribed some painkillers following oral surgery. Boyle emptied the bottle and went looking for more.
“It was right about that time that it went from being fun to something else,” he says. “It was almost like it turned into a job, getting high, chasing that next feeling, whatever it was. Lie, cheat, steal, whatever I had to do.”
Boyle would travel to places like Wilkinsburg, Hazelwood and Mt. Oliver to buy drugs. On days when he didn’t have anything, he had lots of friends who were willing to share. Boyle says they got high in the bathrooms and up on the roof of the high school.
Once a promising high school athlete, Boyle was suspended from school and was facing expulsion after being caught stealing to feed his habit.
“I remember the look in my mother’s eyes,” he says. “She didn’t have to say anything, but I knew I was killing my family.”
So he tried rehab while still in high school, but wasn’t ready to hear what they had to say.
“Basically I told them what they wanted to hear,” he says. “I told them about the drinking, the weed, the pills, but I left a bunch of stuff out. By then I was doing heroin.”
Boyle finished the outpatient course and moved on to college, where he fell back into old habits, got caught stealing again, and after flunking out the first semester, came back home and got right back into the same routine.
The worst part was scamming his family.
“I’d tell my mom I needed the car to go to a meeting or a support group, but I just needed it to go get drugs,” he says.
This went on for a while, until Boyle had what he calls his moment of clarity.
“I don’t know what it was, but I was in the car, and I just had this vision that this was going to be my life, my life was just going to be jail, or death, or just a continuous cycle of rehab and I just broke down crying and texted my mom and said ‘I need you. Meet me in Jefferson Middle School parking lot.’”
This time Boyle was serious about rehab, but he and his mom couldn’t find a place that would take him that night. “So I detoxed on the couch that weekend. I remember, it was back when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in ’06.”
Boyle got himself into a program, two weeks inpatient and another eight weeks as an outpatient. He had one slip, in April of that year, which he says was brought about by hanging out with some friends from the old days. Since then, he’s been clean and sober, six years next month.
“Best decision I ever made,” he says. “I just wanted to stay clean, not for my mom, or my family, or my probation officer. Just for me. It’s been a pretty rocky road, but I know I can’t use, I can’t even have a drink.”
One of Boyle’s biggest tests came this summer, when his mother died suddenly.
“There’s no doubt, if it wasn’t for my mom, I would never have made it,” he says. “She dropped everything, went to classes, learned about drugs, learned about addiction. Just letting me bang on her ears for an hour or two. She got me through this.”
Maria Lanzy is a counselor with Outreach Teen & Family Services. She is also the clinical director of a mental health outpatient facility that has branches in Beaver and Lawrence counties. Lanzy has worked with children, teens and adults who have drug and alcohol issues. She says some warning signs that your child may be developing a drug or alcohol problem are changes in friends, eating and sleeping habits, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, increased secrecy and defensiveness, and household money or items that disappear. She agrees that prescription drugs are often the source of a teen’s first experience with drugs, and suggests keeping a close eye on your medication.
“If you suspect that your teen is abusing drugs, I would recommend talking to them privately without other siblings around,” she says. “Don’t accuse them, but ask them what is going on, if they are struggling with anything, and encourage them to be open and honest.”
The preventive strategies she suggests are what many people consider basic good parenting: “Know your teen’s activities, and know their friends. It’s very important to know their friends and their friends’ parents. Establish rules and consequences, and make it clear you will not tolerate any drug or alcohol abuse.”
Outreach has several programs designed to help teens with drug and alcohol issues. If you think your child is using drugs, Lanzy recommends a drug and alcohol evaluation by a qualified Outreach therapist. If warranted, Outreach offers individual therapy, parenting classes and support groups in a comfortable, confidential atmosphere. For Mt. Lebanon residents, the first two counseling sessions are free. The following eight sessions are $12 each and $35 apiece after that. To schedule an appointment, call 412-561-5405.
“At Outreach, I see a lot of teenagers with first-time citations, who may or may not have underlying drug or alcohol problems,” says Lanzy. Our MAST (Magistrate Alternative Sentencing for Teens) class helps clients understand the dangers and provides education about drug and alcohol problems.”
Sometimes it’s hard for parents to admit that their child might have a problem, says Lanzy. They may fear the stigma that is attached to drug and alcohol addiction, and may see their child’s problem as a reflection on them as parents.
But ignoring the problem is far worse than any family issues or parenting decisions that are in the mix. “If you choose not to acknowledge the problem, then you really have failed,” Lanzy says.
Ed and Rose Painter (not their real names) agree with Lanzy. They’ve been there. Their son Roger had always had behavior problems, until being diagnosed with ADHD and getting on medication.
“It really helped,” says Rose. “He played a lot of sports, took part in a lot of activities.” She began noticing some behavioral changes as Roger got into his teens, a little depression, a little anxiety, but since when is that so unusual for a teen? Then came the day, after being caught in a lie to his parents, that Roger attempted suicide by overdosing on his ADHD meds. His parents got him into treatment, but he never really opened up to the counselors, who had a bunch of other kids to deal with anyway.
It was then that they discovered that Roger had been using a variety of drugs. As they discovered the extent of his drug use, Ed and Rose started on a long journey that’s still going on several years later.
“If you have kids, this is just your worst nightmare,” Ed says. What made it even more hellish, they say, was having to go through it on their own.
“We had to research everything,” Rose says. “It’s not like you can say to your neighbor, ‘hey, who’s your roofer, what plumber did you use, you know a good drug and alcohol counselor?”
Trying to find the best treatment option for their son while working with zero information can be daunting. If you Google “drug rehab Pittsburgh” you will go pages and pages deep. It was by trial and error that they found out what worked best for them and what didn’t, and the considerable cost in money, time and energy made it a very expensive process.
They found insurance referrals to be unhelpful. “They’ll send you to the places that work best for them and their billing system,” says Ed. “The system sucks.”
Rose left her job to manage the logistics of making Roger better. That involved lots of scheduling appointments, driving to counseling and therapy sessions, interspersed with loads and loads of worry.
“There were times, after he went to sleep, that I would take his cell phone and look through it for unfamiliar numbers and texts from people I didn’t know. I knew they were dealers. I’d call them up and scream at them, threaten them, beg them not to sell my son any more drugs.”
Right now Roger is living in a “three-quarter house,” a group home with several other recovering addicts. He has been through four treatment programs. His parents are hopeful.
“Looking back, I wish there was one person I could have talked to, someone who could have guided me through this maze,” says Rose. “Someone to tell us, ‘you’re not alone.’”
Don Smithfield’s wait in county jail is over; he could have a fresh start. He was accepted into an inpatient rehabilitation program in a county north of here. Upon successful completion of the program, he will serve six months in a halfway house, such as Gateway or Greenbriar. According to Howe, he is in good spirits and very positive about making it work this time.
“I just want to get out, get a job, live like a normal person,” Smithfield says.
Smithfield smiles at the myth of the lazy junkie. “I was always working, construction, restaurants, even when I was selling shit,” he says. “I got hired at this one restaurant. There were about 200 servers. First, I cheated to pass the test they gave, and pretty soon I was one of the top three servers they had.
“You want to get high, and you do anything to accomplish that goal. You get to the point where that’s the only thing that matters.”
And the worst part is, it’s not even much fun anymore. “The first time, first few times, it (heroin) gets you high, it’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before. But after a while, it stops being fun. You need it just to feel normal. You need it to not feel sick. You’re sick all the time. Sicker than you can imagine.
“Just don’t get into it,” Smithfield says. “It’s a trap. It’ll ruin your life.”