Pennsylvania leads the nation in drug overdose deaths among young adult men, according to a 2015 report released by the Trust for America’s Health, a public health non-profit.

“There’s seven people a day that die in Pennsylvania of a drug overdose, and that is probably very conservative. That’s more than traffic accidents in Pennsylvania,” Senator Gene Yaw, R-Willliamsport, said at a public hearing held by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania at University of Pittsburgh –Bradford Friday.

“Our sole goal here is to not make judgments. We want to find out what’s going on, how people are handling the problem and what treatment programs work.”

Yaw said Friday’s hearing would mark the 50th hour of testimony about the heroin epidemic the panel has heard over the last two years in small communities across the state.

While most would assume that in that time the statements would become identic, the panel lit up when a mayor of a small town in Tioga County and the district attorney of one of the state’s most rural counties spoke, among a dozen other regional professionals and community leaders.

From addict to mayor

“I’m one of the bad guys. I’ve been hauled into the police department I’m in charge of today,” said Blossburg Mayor Shane Nickerson. He is an addict in his 25th year of recovery and the only speaker met with thunderous applause Friday.

“I wanted them (the police department) to understand that it’s a disease; it’s an illness and that we can do something about it. We really need to look at this from a totally, totally different perspective.”

Blossburg is a small borough in Tioga County with a population under 2,000. Nickerson remains humbled the people there voted him as mayor in spite of his past.

Their vote of confidence coupled with his desire to give back forges his commitment to the community. As such, when an addict overdoses or gets hauled in on charges, he is often there to meet them, asking if they are ready to get treatment.

“What doesn’t get conveyed across enough is the way we (addicts) feel. It’s easy to say those people do bad things, but you don’t know how bad we feel. We think that we’re bad people,” Nickerson said. “We also know that relationships don’t function for us. We don’t fit anymore, even if we ever did. Addiction is lonely. It’s not fun and it’s dark.”

But the young mayor added addiction is not “all doom and gloom.”

“Drug court works because it forces the addict to reconnect. It’s not just putting them in a cage where they’re just waiting. Once someone is locked up we create more barriers for them,” Nickerson said. “People recover from this.”

Successful anti-drug program

In neighboring Potter County, District Attorney Andy Watson is sentencing addicts, but not in the conventional way.

A life-long native of Potter County and its DA since 2010, Watson said drugs were nearly non-existent when he was growing up. In 2010, the highly addictive stimulant known as “bath salts” came with a vengeance and has since been replaced with heroin.

Known as “God’s Country,” Potter County is one of the least populous in the state. While there are only 17 people per square mile, the drug problem there is wide-reaching, with nearly 100 heroin arrests taking place since last summer.

Looking for a unique solution, Watson and the county’s president judge began to visit successful drug treatment court programs to start to tailor its own.

While Watson doesn’t see his role as a prosecutor to be “clapping for people, giving them high fives, and giving them hugs,” he was drawn to the idea of treatment court because he believes high level drug dealers and addicts who deal drugs to get by are intrinsically different people.

The county’s program is 12 months long and followed by a lengthy tail of probation.

Thus far in its two-year history, only one person has been removed for repeated violations.

While the court has been challenging, Watson testified that in 2015: 1,449 jail days were saved; 3,888 substance abuse tests were given with only seven coming back positive; and the program has amassed 1,103 sobriety days from its participants.

“I’m not saying every offender we put in this program is going to succeed – that’s not true. That’s shooting for the moon,” Watson said. “But we have taken people in this program who have overdosed and almost died and they are working to live normal lives.”

C.L.E.A.N.

Potter County has also made statewide headlines recently when, at the suggestion of the mother of an addict, it started C.L.E.A.N. (Concerned Law Enforcement Against Narcotics) Protocol. The program encourages addicts to ask officials for help getting into treatment and allows them to hand over any drug paraphernalia without being prosecuted.

“Is it not our duty to save lives,” Watson asked. “We have to expand our reasoning and our thought patterns to be more open.”

Heroin abuse on the rise

Heroin abuse is becoming the new norm nationwide as addicts are shifting from more costly prescription opioids to cheaper alternatives.

More recent reports indicate that approximately 80 percent of heroin addicts traced their addiction back to prescription opioids.

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A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vital Signs report also confirmed that health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of prescription painkillers.

When a panel of law enforcement professionals from McKean and Elk counties were asked, point-blank, by State Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, “Do we have the resources to continue this fight in our rural communities against this heroin that is coming in,” half said “no” aloud while the other half shook their heads solemnly.

“We recognize there is a significant increase in the heroin and methamphetamine problem growing in our area,” said Kane-based state police Sgt. Marty Henneman. “The changes in the law which have made the prescription of oxycotin and oxycodone more strict has reintroduced heroin as (the) drug of choice in the area like it was 20 years ago.”

While Henneman said the state police, local departments, and drug task forces work well together and do the best they can, more manpower is needed and sentencing guidelines need to be stricter to put addicts in jail or rehab for the length of time it takes to beat addiction.

“I’ve interviewed many offenders in my 24 years, they do not consider probation to be a significant deterrent in their use of drugs,” Henneman said. “They’re not going to stop using until someone makes them stop.”

Struggles in rural areas

Todd Caltagarone, recently retired chief of police in St. Marys and newly instated sheriff of Elk County, said the struggles for rural police departments are daunting.

In St. Marys, he had 14 officers covering 100 square miles with a shifting population of 14,000. Fifty percent of the department’s caseload was drug investigations. While all had to work these crimes, only three had special training.

Many who testified Friday lauded the state’s Attorney General’s Office for funding the local drug task forces. But that too comes with issues as the agencies are made up of officers who work on drug cases, albeit compensated, in their “spare time.”

“Law enforcement cannot completely eradicate the problem, but with increased funding we can push back,” Caltagarone said.

Drug abuse outreach

Jennifer Greenman, outpatient supervisor at Cameron/Elk/McKean Alcohol & Drug Abuse, is the employee who has been with the agency the longest. In that time, she has seen the average age of first use plummet from 35 to 19 years old. In the last year, she has also seen the area’s drug of choice shift from alcohol to heroin.

With only seven outpatient counselors, the agency is the sole provider of alcohol and drug abuse services in a rural, four-county area. It is also the region’s sole extended inpatient treatment program.

As the age of first use goes down, Greenman said the average 28 day stay in rehab isn’t enough. But 90 days might be.

Often, for the first two weeks patients are too sick to listen and process what staff has to say. And with the age of use being lower, patients need more time to learn basic coping skills and how to function in society.

Impact on children

Many who testified came to the table with personal, although nameless stories, of the harrowing effects of addiction on families and their communities.

Recently, Dickinson Center’s program director Tana Funair received a call in the early morning.

As a crisis intervention specialist, she testified that an early morning call is a sign it’s going to be a long day.

The call said a father with three school-aged children had overdosed and crisis intervention counselors were needed for the family as well as young children who participated in the sporting program the man enthusiastically volunteered for.

“I still recall the looks on their (the children’s) faces when I saw them,” Funair said. “The impact is a visitation line that is hours long, standing room only at the funeral.”

“The end result is three children without a father, a wife without a husband, parents without a child.”

Funair is on the front lines helping children in fifth to eighth grade deal with the trauma of living in homes enveloped with the chaos of addiction or who themselves are on the precipice of jumping in.

She has three staff members in eight schools where the second leading cause of death is suicide.

Statistics show that unaddressed trauma of any kind earlier in life will later show itself as unfavorable behavior – like drug addiction. Funair said like most of the agencies present Friday, her program has seen sizeable cuts in funding which have led them, like others, to do more with less.

In talking money, the passionate and forward Funair upped the ante.

“For what it costs one individual to attend 30 days in rehab you can pay one of my prevention specialist’s entire annual salary. The impact of reaching hundreds of students might be worth considering,” Funair said to the panel.

Friday’s hearing was recorded. Footage will eventually be aired on PCN and will be available for viewing on Yaw’s website www.senatorgeneyaw.com.

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