EXETER — Since being sworn into office in January, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said his office has arrested an average of three drug dealers a day. But Shapiro doesn’t believe Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis can be remedied through enforcement alone.
“I can lock up four drug dealers, five drug dealers, six drug dealers every single day I’m in office for the next four years but it still wouldn’t solve the problem,” Shapiro told students at Wyoming Area Secondary Center on Thursday. “We can’t just go out and arrest drug dealers and solve the problem. We have to ask ourselves how people become addicted in the first place.”
The state’s top law enforcement official plans to speak to many students over the coming months because he believes they can play a critical role in stemming opioid abuse. Wyoming Area was the first stop on Shapiro’s mission.
“(Teens) can go out in the community and make the big difference by changing the culture and mindset, encouraging people to get the help and counseling they need and discouraging people from using heroin, opioids and other illegal drugs,” said Shapiro after he spoke to the school’s student body.
As part of the effort, Shapiro invited Joe Lubowitz, 28, to tell his story. Lubowitz, of Upper Dublin, is a former high school varsity athlete who said his experience with illegal drugs and alcohol is something he “wouldn’t wish upon anyone.” After finally getting clean in 2011, Lubowitz founded Humble Beginnings Recovery Centers.
“I want them to know what can happen with just a simple few wrong decisions or some peer pressure, and how bad it can get,” Lubowitz said.
Shapiro’s Executive Deputy of Public Engagement Robert Reed said the AG’s office has to do outreach because “things have gotten to the point where it’s scary.”
“Too many lives are being lost,” Reed said. “There’s a million reasons why this may be happening now, but the bottom line is we just have to make people more aware. Education does make a difference.”
Shapiro hopes to make a difference by changing the culture surrounding addiction and treatment. He told Wyoming Area students that it should be cool to help those in need and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. He also said young people should help law enforcement to understand the culture, while officers should reciprocate by recognizing the difference between a criminal and a person in need of treatment.
‘We need you’
Shapiro finished his presentation by taking questions. Wyoming Area students asked about his stance on marijuana (he believes recreational marijuana should remain illegal); his own experiences with drugs (tainted marijuana caused cognitive impairment in one of his former classmates); and his opinion on less addictive painkillers (he believes pharmaceutical companies should manufacture them instead of current, more addictive drugs.)
Wyoming Area Superintendent Janet Serino said Shapiro’s visit was facilitated by state Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston. Serino said the district needs to educate its students about “what is happening in the world.”
“We’re not oblivious to the fact that there are issues surrounding every single school district,” Serino said. “We are looking at this as being a preventative measure and making our students aware of everything that is out there surrounding them as they make every decision.”
Throughout the presentation, the message was clear: the young people of Pennsylvania are on the front lines of the opioid problem, and Harrisburg believes they need to be empowered.
“This area is an area that needs extra help pushing back on this crisis, and I really think you have such an important role to play,” Shapiro told the teens. “I didn’t come here today because you’re kids, I came here today to talk to you as adults and ask you for your help. We need you for this.”
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6406 or on Twitter @GeneAxtonTL