Renewed efforts committed to fight drug use across region

Lycoming County law enforcement officials gathered Thursday to announce renewed efforts to root out what they say is the area’s growing drug problem.

The Lycoming County Narcotics Enforcement Unit will be a collaborative effort among state police and local law enforcement personnel, according to county District Attorney Eric Linhardt.

Since 2007, the state attorney general’s had operated the drug task force.

“The main thrust of this is the drug task force will be run through my office,” he said.

Linhardt noted that following consultations with the attorney general’s office and county commissioners, it was agreed that his office assume responsibility for operating the task force.

Under the county, the unit will have access to more funding.

“It makes it significantly better because of the substantial allocations that didn’t previously exist,” Linhardt said.

Five full-time county narcotics detectives officers will work with the unit to help support drug fighting efforts.

Williamsport City Police will add two officers for narcotics investigations.

Williamsport, Old Lycoming Township, Montoursville, and Tiadaghton Regional Police are to provide part-time officers to work overtime.

In addition, the unit will work in conjunction with the state police vice unit, Troop F, Montoursville.

The hope, he said, is that other municipalities will contribute manpower as well.

County commissioners approved hiring of the county detectives at their Thursday meeting.

They are to start work Jan. 5.

Commissioner Jeff Wheeland said the amount of manpower for such a force is unique in the state.

“We’re done talking about the issue,” he said. “Now is the time for action.”

Commissioner Tony Mussare told Linhardt of the importance of the drug unit, especially based on heartbreaking phone calls from concerned and impacted parents.

Linhardt said the task force, funded by $233,525 in county dollars, will provide rapid investigations and hopefully result in large numbers of arrests.

He and others referred to the area’s alarming rise of heroin.

“The drug users are already here, said Anthony Sassano, regional director of the state Attorney General’s office.

He noted that part of the solution to the drug problem, which includes an increasing use and abuse of prescription drugs, will involve rehabilitation and education.

The state attorney general’s office will support the task force with annual allotments to reimburse what the county pays to operate the task force.

Reimbursements also will come through drug forfeiture dollars.

As mid-level and large scale drug operations are uncovered, particularly those operating across county lines, investigations will be referred to the attorney general.

“Doing nothing isn’t an option,” said Lycoming County Sheriff Mark Lusk.

Resources are needed to fight the drug problem, he added.

Wheeland noted that easy availability of heroin makes drug fighting efforts difficult.

“Heroin on our streets is cheaper than a pack of cigarettes,” he said.

Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling said 15 percent of the deaths his office investigates are somehow drug-related.

Linhardt said heroin is the No. 1 drug of choice in the state.

He attributed the “heroin epidemic” to the large number of people addicted to prescription drugs, which serve as gateway drugs to heroin, as well as the influx of heroin from Mexico and its availability now in a purer and cheaper form.

Sun-Gazette Reporter Elizabeth Regan contributed to this story