Strategy beyond prison pitched to Wolf to fight Pa. opioid epidemic
The battle against the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic won't be won only by arresting users and dealers, but by also preventing opioid abuse and improving access to addiction treatment centers, representatives from government, education and health care told Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday.
“We cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem,” Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck told the governor and about 20 state, county and local government officials and social service leaders during a roundtable at St. Vincent College near Latrobe.
Vigorous law enforcement efforts and aggressive prosecution have not solved the opioid problem, Peck said. When a drug dealer is arrested, “there is one or more of them to take their place,” he said.
The governor said he is gathering information from about 20 roundtables he has held across the state.
“We're hoping to learn from these people on the front lines (of the drug war) about what we can do,” said Wolf, who was shown a package of heroin by county Detective Tony Marcocci.
“This is a Pennsylvania problem. It doesn't matter whether you are Republican or Democrat,” said Wolf, a Democrat, as he sat next to state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.
The governor noted that nearly 2,500 people died of drug overdoses statewide in 2014, and experts expect the 2015 death toll to be higher once the numbers are finalized. Statistics show that seven Pennsylvanians die each day from an overdose.
The Westmoreland coroner's office has recorded 40 fatal overdoses so far this year, and 19 more could be confirmed by toxicology results. All other causes of deaths combined “don't come close to the overdose deaths,” Coroner Kenneth Bacha said.
“So far, we have been filling the cemeteries and prisons, and it doesn't work,” Bacha said.
As serious as the heroin abuse problem has been in the county for several years, Marcocci said, “it has gotten worse over the past two months.”
Heroin is being mixed with fentanyl, an opioid used in anesthesia to block pain from surgery, and drug users have no idea of its potency and deadly potential, he said.
The user's attitude is, “I know it might kill me, but I can't stop using it,” Marcocci said.
Fentanyl deaths in the county rose to 25 in 2015, up from just four in 2014, the coroner said. As of May 23, 17 people have died from a fentanyl overdose, and one died from acetyl fentanyl, considered to be stronger than heroin or morphine.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, said he is concerned that the prescription drug abuse problem is growing statewide.
Those who get hooked on prescription painkillers turn to street dealers, then move on to heroin because it is so much cheaper, said Eric Kocian, an assistant professor of criminology and law and society at St. Vincent who is leading a study on the root causes of addiction and recovery.
“They snort it first, then they shoot it. These people are not seeking it for a euphoria high” but to avoid withdrawal symptoms, Kocian said.
Better monitoring of prescription drug distribution from physicians is needed, said Dirk Matson, the county's director of human services.
The state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is designed to help health care professionals identify patients who would benefit from treatment. Wolf said the program may need to be extended to monitor dentists as well.
In an effort to get drug abusers in treatment, Westmoreland started a drug court last fall where defendants who are convicted or plead guilty to a drug crime would get supervised treatment rather than jail time. More than 50 percent of county inmates are there for drug or drug-related crimes, Peck said.
With the drug court, the county is approaching the epidemic as a public health problem, said Commissioner Ted Kopas.
To be effective, the county needs an inpatient detoxification facility, said Tim Phillips, director of community prevention services for Westmoreland Community Action.
Addicts must go to Allegheny or Washington counties to get inpatient care, Phillips said. But people want to be with their families, because “this is a family disease,” he said.
“People are literally dying waiting to get a bed,” Phillips said.
The social stigma of drug addiction is hindering recovery efforts, Kocian said.
“People are asking, almost begging for help. This is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year addiction,” he said.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.