Officers give a heads-up on drug use

April 20, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - "Pictures kids have in their lockers wind up in caskets," Philadelphia Police Officer Virginia Pagano told the audience at Chambersburg Area High School Monday night while showing a slide of a teenager lying in his casket, surrounded by photos and other mementos.

"His buddies put a baseball cap in with him. A lot of good that will do him," she said.

The young man had died of a drug overdose.

Officer Pagano and her partner, Mary Ellen Ferry, both of the Philadelphia Narcotics Bureau, brought their HEADS UP! program to Chambersburg to warn youngsters and parents of the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Over the past three years, the two have delivered the graphic, fast-paced presentation to 175,000 people in more than 1,000 locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

In Philadelphia, 272 young people died of OxyContin abuse last year.

"Kids think it's OK because it's a prescription drug," Pagano said.


OxyContin is a painkiller usually prescribed for cancer patients or others with intractable pain. Used properly, it dissolves in the stomach over a 12- to 15-hour period.

"But the kids will chew it, or they'll crush it, then snort it or smoke it or inject it into a vein. It slams into the respiratory system and shuts things down."

Pagano, who has been a police officer for 18 years, and Ferry, a 26-year veteran, have been to "hundreds of these funerals," Pagano said.

They know all too well what happens before the funeral, too.

"The flip side of kids getting high and having what they call 'fun,' is us picking up the bodies," Pagano said. Her slide show depicted several actual death scenes, and followed the bodies from them to the stainless steel tables and toe tags of the morgue.

At school assemblies, Pagano often has students fill out toe tags, which she tells them to keep in their wallets. "If this happens to you, I don't want to fill it out," she said.

Some kids who overdose while out with friends are dumped when the "friends" panic. One girl was dropped off 8 feet from a hospital emergency room, where she died; a boy was pushed out of a car near a suburban shopping center and his body not discovered for two months. "Those 'friends' stood in front of his parents and swore they didn't know where he was," Pagano said.

Pagano said kids think marijuana is safe to smoke, but that the active ingredient in it, THC, gets them "high and hooked."

"This is not the same weed from the '60s and '70s," she said. The plants are sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals to make them grow faster, thereby increasing the profit for the grower. "There are 400 poisonous chemicals in marijuana," she said.

The problem is compounded when kids soak the joints in PCP, creating "wet sticks," she said. "This can cause permanent brain damage, and the chemical stays in the fatty tissue for eight weeks. Kids get hallucinations from it."

Several local families who lost loved ones to drugs attended.

The HEADS UP! program will be presented to middle school and high school students Tuesday. It was sponsored locally by the Enough is Enough group of Franklin County.

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