The number of 2016 drug overdose deaths in Luzerne County is expected to total 140, county Coroner William Lisman said Tuesday.
“The significance is that we doubled what we had in 2013 and 2014. In 24 months, it doubled,” said Lisman, who has publicly issued warnings about the increase and called for more awareness about the scope of the opioid crisis.
Lisman’s office handled 137 confirmed overdoses last year and is awaiting lab test results on three more likely deaths.
It’s an increase of 45 overdose deaths compared to the previous record high of 95 last year. There were 67 overdose deaths in 2014 and 70 in 2013, the office said.
The trend may continue in 2017, officials have warned.
State Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Gary Tennis said last month a spike in heroin overdoses is expected as the state takes the “necessary step” of cracking down on prescription drugs through a database monitoring program and other initiatives aimed at preventing future addiction.
Those already addicted may “go to the street” to obtain heroin when they can’t secure prescription pills, and the purity of heroin and potency of substances it’s cut with often lead to fatal overdoses, Tennis has said.
Ed Pane, a Hazleton area resident who has worked in the substance abuse counseling field for decades, said the doubling of overdose deaths is evidence of a problem that should be addressed with extended treatment and increased affordable access to maintenance drugs such as methadone and Suboxone.
“You cannot arrest your way out of this problem,” said Pane, who currently operates Pane Counseling, Consulting and Education.
But county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said her office is determined to work with law enforcement to cut off the supply of illegal drugs.
“We want to make sure people know we won’t turn our backs on dealers,” she said, describing the rising count of overdose deaths as “very sad.” “We’re doing everything we can within our power.”
Dealers “need to be scared” because they face prison time if they provided the drugs that killed, Salavantis said.
State law was changed several years ago to eliminate a requirement to prove alleged dealers had malicious intent when they provided illegal drugs to overdose victims.
The revised law says it’s a first-degree felony if someone intentionally “administers, dispenses, delivers, gives, prescribes, sells or distributes” a controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance and another person dies as a result of using that substance.
Salavantis said she has referred one case to the U.S. Attorney’s office under this law and has many other active cases in the works with police that could lead to federal charges.
The county coroner’s office has implemented a new policy delaying the release of all overdose victims to family members for 48 to 72 hours to allow police and the district attorney to further investigate possible charges and determine if an autopsy is warranted, Lisman said.
County council members also included increased funding for a new deputy coroner position and more autopsies in the 2017 budget due to the opiod crisis. County Councilman Robert Schnee has described the county as a “heroin haven,” and Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said the drug has “taken over” Hazleton.