"A storm is raging," said Lycoming County Judge Marc Lovecchio, "and it continues to rage on."
That was the message at large from the Lycoming County Heroin Task Force community subcommittee when it held a public information and education meeting about heroin and prescription drug abuse Saturday evening.
About 80 people gathered at St. Joseph the Worker's Fleming Center to hear from a wide range of speakers that included Mayor Gabriel J. Campana, former addicts and family members affected by addiction.
Lycoming County Judge Marc Lovecchio addresses the crowd at a meeting Saturday dealing with the city’s heroin epidemic.
Dr. Rene Rigal outlined a plan for the city to find drug dealers, prosecute them and make it known they are not welcome in Williamsport during a Heroin Sub Committee Task Force meeting Saturday night. Rigal also encouraged compassion for those struggling with drug addiction.
"This is not just a Williamsport problem, not just a Lycoming county problem, not just a state problem," Campana said. "This is a nationwide problem."
The mayor outlined several actions that the city is taking in order to combat the problem, including putting a resolution before city council that would make the city an official partner of the task force.
Noting that drugs such as heroin and prescription painkillers are often trafficked into or through Williamsport from larger cities, Campana said that his office also has made recent phone calls to Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, and Luis Quintana, the acting mayor of Newark - two cities that have been identified as sources for drugs circulating in the Williamsport area.
Campana also told the crowd that the city police department will begin using a drug-sniffing dog in June, which he called "an invaluable tool" for law enforcement.
Campana said the battle against heroin and prescription drug abuse can be successfully fought and won, but it will take a strong, community-wide effort.
"Today is day one," he said. "Today is when we all start making changes together."
Lovecchio - first thanking the crowd "for caring enough to be here" - also spoke about the problem and the extent to which it is ballooning in the Lycoming county and the surrounding area.
He used several examples of recent cases involving admitted heroin and drug abusers, including a 30 year-old-man who stays home with his three children every day and still uses prescription drugs, and a pregnant 23 year-old woman who was suspected of shooting up heroin just before her court appearance.
The pregnant woman, Lovecchio said, denied that she was using. When forced to submit a urine sample, it tested positive for heroin.
"Now what do we do?" He said. "We have to think about sentencing her differently, making sure she has access to the specific medical care that will ensure her baby doesn't go through withdrawal."
It's an example of a situation caused by heroin use that "we didn't have a protocol in place for."
However, now they know the proper course of action to take, he said, which he hopes will lead to recovery.
Despite being confronted by the problem almost daily, Lovecchio said that he is optimistic for the future, especially in light of the efforts being undertaken by organizations like the task force.
"I am hopeful for the future," he said. "I see a little bit of sunlight."
Other speakers included Nick, a former addict and member of the committee, who spoke about his struggle with heroin use as a young man and the effects it had not only on himself, but on his family - including stealing syringes that his mother needed to inject his grandmother with insulin.
"Do you think I cared about what I was doing? Nope," he said.
Another speaker, a woman who did not wish to be identified, echoed the devastation that a family feels when a loved one becomes addicted to a drug like heroin.
"Those coping mechanisms that a mother or a parent uses, they don't work on addiction," she said. "This levels them."
She also cautioned that heroin and prescription drug abuse can happen to anyone, but that because it is a problem that affects so many different types of people, there is help out there - for the addicts as well as their families and friends.
It was a note of optimism, tentative as it was, that seemed to reveal itself in remarks made throughout the evening.
Nick referenced Lovecchio's perception of the issue as a raging storm, saying that even those who were once part of the problem can be a powerful force for positive change.
"I'm trying to be part of the solution," he said. "I'm in the lifeboat now. I'm looking for others."