HAZLETON – A panel of experts provided a sobering look at Luzerne County’s drug problem during a public forum co-hosted by state Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne), U.S. Congressman Lou Barletta (R-11) and state Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon) at Hazleton Area High School last Thursday evening.
The legislators brought together health care professionals and law enforcement officials to discuss the devastating impact the drug epidemic is having on local families and communities, and the efforts underway to resolve it on the federal, state and county levels.
According to the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office, there were 140 drug overdose deaths in the county during 2016, which is a 150 percent increase over the previous year when 95 drug overdose deaths were recorded. Officials expect to meet or exceed that number in 2017.
“The numbers are staggering,” Yudichak told the crowd. “That’s four times the rate, per capita, of New York City. That is not a distinction you want to have as a community.”
“Pennsylvania has at least 10 people a day dying from some type of drug overdose,” added Toohil. “I think we have ripped off the stigma associated with drug addiction. It used to be that people did not want to talk about this.”
Local drug rehabilitation programs have seen a dramatic patient increase in recent years. For example, the drugs of choice were opioids or heroin for 56 percent of the addicts admitted to Clearbrook Treatment Centers in 2013. Two years later, that number jumped to 70 percent.
“This heroin epidemic has been devastating for us. It’s like standing in front of a 50-foot wave,” said Clearbrook representative John Knowles.
The legislators pointed out that more funding has become available on both the federal and state levels to support law enforcement efforts and treatment facilities, but they acknowledged that more is needed.
“I’ve never seen an issue garner as much bipartisan support as the challenge we face with the opioid addiction,” said Yudichak. “Over 50 million dollars in the last two years to battle this issue.”
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said the county drug task force and drug treatment court are starting to make a difference by taking drugs off the street and helping addicts get clean.
“We need to do more together. We can’t arrest our way out of this,” Salavantis added. “We need to provide more treatment, more programs, for these addicts because until we do that, there will be no change.”
“No one is immune,” said Hazleton Police Chief Jerry Speziale. “Heroin took my brother-in-law. It also took my first cousin. These experiences are all too real, too common.”
The audience was urged to remove unused or expired prescriptions from their medicine cabinets and discard them in a drop-off box at the Hazleton Police Department and other locations.
“That’s probably the very first thing we can do to begin to fight this problem,” said Barletta. “The only way we’re going to solve it is doing what we’re doing tonight, coming together, recognizing there’s a problem and shining a light on it.”
A video recording of the two-hour forum, which included questions from the audience, will be available for viewing on Toohil’s website, RepToohil.com
Representative Tarah Toohil
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Contact: Rep. Toohil’s Office