Panel discusses solutions to drug crisis

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Josh Shapiro, state attorney general, right, speaks to The Center for Rural Pennsylvania board members during a public hearing on the “State of Addiction” Thursday at UPMC Susquehanna Regional Medical Center. Seated to the left of Shapiro is Gary Tuggle, special agent in charge, US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Education, collaboration and treatment were the key words at Thursday’s public hearing at UPMC Susquehanna on the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania.

Shea Madden, executive director, West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, shed light on the need for better education about the problem when she shared a story about recently losing someone she knew to drug addiction.

That person, she said, had seemingly overcome her drug woes and was doing well before experiencing a relapse.

Madden said she was the victim of the stigma surrounding addiction.

“The shame and guilt for her was too much,” she said.

Madden said those struggling with addiction need treatment and compassion and deserve dignity and respect.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans who’ve used heroin — including those in treatment — reported misusing prescription opioids first, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Opioids are a category of narcotics including heroin, all derived from the poppy plant.

Others testifying at the Center for Rural Pennsylvania hearing noted that education is working to bring the message of the opioid crisis to more people.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said that more than 4,600 people suffered fatal overdoses from opioids in 2016, an increase of 37 percent from the previous year.

He called for increased law enforcement and resources for targeting dealers, particularly in rural areas of the state where state police provide the only coverage.

More funding and drug courts to battle opioid addiction are needed too.

He referred to addiction as a disease and not a crime.

“We can’t arrest our way of this crisis,” he said.

Lycoming County President Judge Nancy L. Butts noted the 48-hour period this summer when Williamsport and the surrounding area experienced 51 opioid overdoses.

“To say we are overwhelmed by this opioid problem is a an understatement,” she said.

She noted that the county has in place a number of programs to deal with addiction.

For example, many who come through the criminal court system under the influence of drugs or alcohol are referred for treatment.

Since serving as the judge of the county’s drug court, she’s seen increasingly younger people going through the program. She has learned, she said, that many people dealing with addiction grew up in circumstances that included violence, abandonment, and poverty, and subsequently turn to drugs to manage anxiety.

She called for a holistic approach in treatment, with collaboration involving behavioral health, drug and alcohol and other health care providers.

“Help us find ways of acknowledging the value of these persons in our community,” she said. “Help educate the public that they are just like you and me and worth the opportunity to prove they are employable and capable and valuable citizens.”

Steve Shope, executive director, Project Bald Eagle, agreed education is the key to fighting the opioid crisis.

He said his agency has reached out to nearly 20,000 people through programs and training sessions that have involved teaching people in the use of naloxone for reversing opioid overdoses.

At one point, state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township and chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, asked why the county has experienced an increase in fatal opioid overdoses.

Lycoming County District Attorney Eric Linhardt said heroin is increasingly being mixed with fentanyl, making for a far more potent and dangerous drug.

He said inadequate funding for law enforcement and stricter sentencing guidelines against drug dealers are needed.

“The claim that our prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders and that drug dealing is a victimless crime is a falsehood that must be dispelled,” he said.

Drug dealers, Linhardt noted, inevitably carry guns and nearly all shootings in the county are drug-related.

In the meantime, federal and state inmates are being released in unprecedented numbers and drug dealers in state prisons are awarded good time credits and early release.

Linhardt shared some good news, noting that he has referred hundreds of non-violent offenders into treatment programs and launched the Med Return program that has led to the collection of nearly 2.5 tons of unused medications for proper disposal.