Taming the heroin problem hitting Northeastern Pennsylvania, and much of the nation, won’t be fast, easy or purely a matter for the police.
The latest upsurge in the deadly drug’s popularity — fueled by cheap prices, a corresponding rise in prescription drug abuse in the United States and money-hungry dealers all too willing to meet demand — calls for a wide response, from federal agencies to individual families, including yours.
It begins with awareness. By now, area residents and their civic leaders certainly should realize that no community is immune. Heroin gets sold and used not only in Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, but also in Luzerne County’s boroughs and rural townships. The steady trade here might dip immediately after a high-profile roundup of traffickers, such as 2010’s “Operation Last Hurrah,” but the flow of opiates from far-off places into local users’ veins pulses on.
Those who fall victim to this drug come from all social and economic strata, as outlined in a three-part Civitas Media series appearing this week in The Times Leader. Even county judges can be junkies. But pinning the problem solely on the addicts, while trying to pigeonhole them into convenient stereotypes, doesn’t help to solve the situation. As programs such as Drug Free Pennsylvania frequently emphasize, “heroin addicts are not bad people, but they have a bad problem.”
By extension, we all have a bad problem.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that overdosing, on substances including heroin, is the country’s leading cause of accidental death, topping the annual tolls from categories such as traffic fatalities, gun homicides and suicides.
Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for instances of heroin use and overdoses, according to information distributed last month by Drug Free Pennsylvania, a Camp Hill-based nonprofit specializing in workplace antidrug programs. Earlier this year in the western part of the state, health officials pinned nearly two dozen overdose deaths that occurred within a matter of weeks on tainted heroin. Some of the fatal batches contained fentanyl, an opioid that is 10 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to news reports.
Heroin’s 21st-century resurgence and its tragic consequences have spurred a better-late-than-never response from many corners of society; yet plenty remains to be done.
At the national level, interdiction efforts aimed at stopping opium from seeping across U.S. borders can make an impact. But the more promising, and more permanent, solution involves pressuring the source countries in Latin America and Asia, including Afghanistan, to become more aggressive in destroying opium poppies, the plant from which heroin is derived, and the cartels that profit from its sale.
At the state level, lawmakers and the medical community can promote sound policies that keep prescription drugs out of the hands of people who don’t legitimately need them. Already, a bill under consideration in Harrisburg would establish a statewide database intended to help pinpoint prescription drug abuse. It’s a well-intentioned effort, yet state officials must balance the goal of going after abusers with the need to protect the privacy rights of all.
Meanwhile, the Trust for America’s Health, based in Washington, D.C., encourages policy makers to consider steps such as these: the expansion of prescription medication “take back” programs, greater access to addiction treatment programs and wider availability of rescue medications, such as naloxone, for overdose victims. Immunity for people seeking help also is advisable, according to the trust.
In homes across Northeastern Pennsylvania, people shouldn’t be clueless about the heroin problem — or callous.
Report suspected illegal drug activity to police. Talk to children and teens about the very real dangers of drug use, about addiction, about death. Safely store your household’s prescription medications. Properly dispose of unused drugs. Don’t voice any knee-jerk opposition to the opening of an area methadone or other treatment clinic; learn about its operation and weigh the options before taking a position. Know the warning signs of heroin abuse.
And, of course, if a family member or friend gets addicted, seek treatment for him or her and offer ongoing support. Battling heroin can be done only day by day, life by precious life.