Wave of addiction

The first of four statewide hearings on heroin and prescription drug abuse was held Wednesday at the Williamsport Regional Medical Center, a five-hour-plus session packed with testimony from state and local officials that underscored the concern about the epidemic.

“This is the next big wave in drug addiction,” said Gary Tennis, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “I saw it in the 1980s with cocaine and crack cocaine, and it’s here again with opioids.”

The hearing, conducted by the bipartisan state legislative agency The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, invited nearly two dozen professionals from fields that ranged from the criminal justice sys-

tem to the business sector to testify on how they observe prescription drug and heroin abuse affecting Lycoming County and surrounding areas.

Crime, said Lt. Robert Mann, of the state police barracks in Montoursville, is an obvious and particulary damaging offshoot of the problem.

“We’ve seen increases in property crimes like burglary and theft, and not just retail but personal properties, to get money or items for purchasing heroin,” he said.

Mann said he’s also seen a sharp increase in vehicular crashes caused by drug use and driving under the influence of heroin.

It all adds up to a drain on manpower and resources when investigating drug-related incidents, he said, noting that not only do state police officers respond to the scene, but Forensic Service Unit personnel are required to gather evidence and document the circumstances.

Capt. Michael Orwig, of the Williamsport Bureau of Police, agreed.

“Police are taxed with the spin-off of crimes committed by addicts and dealers, but we all feel the effects at some point,” he said, adding that the department responded to eight unrelated incidents involving heroin use between June 14 and July 2 – and most were individuals already on probation or parole for drug use that were arrested for possession – and confiscated 10 illegally-owned handguns.

All 10 of those cases, Orwig said, “involved drugs, namely heroin.”

The criminal justice system as a whole is feeling the impact, according to Lycoming County President Judge Nancy Butts.

“We’re seeing so many more people using, openly using,” she said. “More driving under the influence arrests. More people using while on parole or probation. We need to stem the tide.”

Butts said that while Lycoming County has had a drug court in place for nearly 20 years, a more streamlined approach to treatment is needed – and so is more access to funding.

“We need to be able to use funding streams for lower-level offenders, like users and not dealers, so that we can get them treatment and monitoring programs sooner and not let them come back into the criminal justice system,” she said.

Butts also said she would like to see sentencing guidelines amended in order to make more offenders eligible for treatments, something that District Attorney Eric Lindhardt agreed with – mostly.

“I believe that we need stiffer penalties for dealers and traffickers,” he said. “A trafficker without a significant criminal record can face a sentence of only three to 12 months at county work-release. Such sentences act as no deterrent to a drug dealer.”

Drug use also is putting pressure on prisons, even at the county level, said Lycoming County Prison Warden Kevin DeParlos.

“Our inmate population has risen steadily over the last few years and we’re constantly running close to capacity, if not over,” he said. “We’ve had to house inmates at other county prisons, and the increase, we believe, is due to drug-related crime.”

Don Stewart, warden of the Bradford County Correctional Facility, said his prison is experiencing similar overcrowding, in addition to the side effects of previous needle use among inmates.

“We’ve seen an increase in diseases attributed to intravenous drug use,” such as hepatitis C and HIV, he said. “Our medication provider estimates our cost to be $100,000 per inmate for an eight- to-12-week course of hepatitis C treatment.”

Crime – and by extension, its increased burden on taxpayers – isn’t the only area being hit by prescription drug and heroin abuse.

“It’s now a constant complaint that I hear from employers that they can’t find people to fill jobs,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the state Chamber of Business and Industry.

“It’s not because they don’t have the skills or the education; it’s because they won’t pass a drug or alcohol test,” he said. “That’s a real problem for employers.”

Barr cited a study published in April of 2013 that surveyed 464 Pennsylvania businesses about the problems with filling open positions, in which 32 percent of businesses said “passing background checks,” including drug testing, was a barrier to hiring.

In addition, he said, a Pennsylvania Manufacturer’s Association study released this year found that one out of every three applicants for manufacturing jobs in 2013 either refused or failed a drug test.

“This is becoming a issue for the state, if we can’t hire reliable people and compete with other states economically,” Barr said.

Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Vince Matteo said he’s heard similar concerns from businesses, and that the chamber is planning or already has launched several intiatives, such as encouraging businesses to include information about where to get help for addiction in paycheck envelopes.

“A chamber has to be engaged, because an element of successful economic development depends on a good, reliable work force,” he said. “Without it, it’s difficult to bring in and keep companies in the area.”

Efforts are underway in other fields to combat the epidemic, especially the medical field – and for Dr. Rene Rigal, city Board of Health officer, it starts with revamping prescription guidelines and better educating doctors on managing pain.

“Four percent of doctors in this state are responsible for 80 percent of the problem, because of overprescribing or not following the rules outright,” he said. “Doctors need to be better educated on different ways to manage pain instead of just handing out pills.”

Rigal also voiced his support for a statewide prescription drug monitoring program – one that would store and distribute prescriptions for federally controlled substances, like opioids – legislation for which is pending in the state House of Representatives.

Establishing better prescription guidelines and working to overhaul state drug laws also has been a goal of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said Dr. David Talenti, vice chairman of the board of trustees.

“We’re actively participating in the Joint State Government Commission’s examination of the state’s drug laws and regulations,” Talenti said.

“We also launched a ‘Pills for Ills, Not Thrills’ campaign that offers physicians information and resources for their practices. We strongly support (Sen. Dominic) Pileggi’s Good Samaritan bill, which would provide protection for those seeking help for a person experiencing an overdose,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to help.”

Promoting intiatives already in place is another goal, said Dr. John Devine, of Evangelical Community Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

“Gov. (Tom) Corbett’s prescription program of drug drop-off boxes has been enormously helpful,” he said. “I’d like to see them at every hospital entrance.”

More than 2 tons of prescription pills have been collected since the program was implemented in January of this year, Devine said.

Another arm of the fight against drug abuse is education – not only of the public but in schools, as well.

“Education is the silver bullet,” Talenti said.

Lycoming County Coroner Charles E. Kiessling Jr. felt the same way.

“I’ve seen firsthand the lives and families destroyed by drug addiction,” he said. “Providing more education in our schools in an effort to reduce addiction before it begins is crucial.”

To that end, the Lycoming County Heroin Task Force created a Youth Development Task Force, bolstered by members of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, from seven area schools.

“Students need to help as well, because sometimes we’re more receptive to our peers than to adults,” said senior Natalie Lamoreaux, former SADD president at Muncy High School.

She said that the group has sponsored “Find Your Anti-Drug” and “Join the Majority” campaigns, which use grants to purchase T-shirts with the slogan and raise awareness among students about engaging in activities other than trying drugs or alcohol.

“Kids involved in extracurricular activities are less likely to do drugs,” said former Muncy SADD secretary Crystal Good.

Even college students are not immune to the problem of prescription drugs and heroin, said Donna George, coordinator of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s Alcohol and Other Drug coalition.

“Although studies show that less than 1 percent of college students use heroin and other intravenous drugs, we’ve seen the numbers increasing slowly, especially with prescription drug abuse,” she said.

“Even at the college level, additional outreach programs are needed for opiate and heroin use,” said Dr. Timothy Susick, associate vice president of California University of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, most schools are already stretched to their limit responding to alcohol and marijuana issues.”

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said that while it’s a negative that the issue hits so close to home in Williamsport, it was chosen for the first of the meetings – the others will take place in Berks, Cambria and Clarion counties – because of the Lycoming County’s reaction to the problem.

“The county has been aggressive in looking for solutions and how they’ve approached the problem,” he said. “There was an overwhelming response to having it here.”

Tennis, however, had a more grim warning for the panel.

“We need more funding for treatment of those are arrested and also addicted,” he said. “Nationwide, states are only equipped to provide treatment for about 1 out of every 10 of those people – for the other nine, they’re out of luck. They have one of two paths – prison or the morgue.”