Lackawanna County District Attorney Shane Scanlon and Joe Kane from Clearbrook Treatment Centers presented grim news to students and members of the public during their ‘Heroin Hits Home’ presentation at Keystone College on Nov. 14.
Terming the opiate addiction crisis now gripping the area as an ‘epidemic,’ Scanlon informed the group that in 2014, 34 people died in Lackawanna County of a drug overdose. That number jumped to 69 in 2015, he said, and is expected this year to exceed 100.
Greatly alarmed by this trend, Scanlon explained after the lecture, that he is taking ‘Heroin Hits Home’ to the public in the hopes of educating people about the seriousness of the situation.
“People need to realize the presence of our drug problem,” Scanlon said. “The amount of lives that are being ruined or lost; The huge impact that it has on all of our citizens.”
During the lecture, Scanlon emphasized several times that law enforcement is going to need public support in order to combat the epidemic.
“You’re never going to arrest your way out of it,” he said. “We don’t have enough jail space.”
The district attorney pointed out that the cliche of the heroin addict who is a homeless person living under a bridge is just that - a cliche.
“It can affect anyone - the very young to the very old, rich, poor, black or white,” he said. “We all need to act because law enforcement can never do it alone.”
Scanlon challenged members of the audience to take action for people they know who are addicted, before the situation becomes worse. He pointed out that 75 percent of the people in the room know someone who is an addict.
Every three days, Scanlon continued, someone in Luzerne County dies of a drug overdose.
He predicted the number could go as high as one a day at the present rate - something he does not wish to see.
“But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
The seeds of the epidemic were sewn by the medical profession over-subscribing opiates and other pain killers.
Scanlon said that 88 out of 100 people have pain pills in their possession. But problems occurred when their prescriptions ran out, and those on them found themselves addicted.
These people often turn to heroin because it is cheap, Scanlon explained, saying that the average cost per bag in the area is now about $3, down from the $25 a bag in 2007.
A major part of the problem, Scanlon continued, is that there is still a major stigma connected with drug addiction.
He said he has read comments from people on Facebook, who ask why we should help these people, because they choose to become addicted.
He also pointed out that despite the fact so many people are dying of drug overdoses, their obituaries merely say they ‘passed away unexpectedly,’ or something similar.
Such thinking is a mistake, Scanlon said, because the only way to fight the problem is acknowledge it exists and take the necessary steps to combat the situation.
He also praised the efforts of the Lackawanna County Drug Treatment Court, saying that it has had a much higher success rate in treating drug addicts, as opposed to simple incarceration.
During the second part of the presentation, Kane related to the audience his experience as a heroin addict.
The first time he tried an opiate was when he was in high school, Kane explained, when he stole it from a person suffering from terminal cancer.
Through the years, Kane continued, he saw his life spiral downward as he used drugs and alcohol more and more. By 2005, he had to sell drugs in order to support his habit.
“At one point, I got robbed at gun point,” Kane said.
Finally, things got so bad for himself and his family, he decided to turn his life around by participating in a 12-step program to get him off drugs.
During the question and answer period, someone asked why treatment court has been so much more effective than incarceration.
Scanlon explained it’s because a person must be involved with treatment court for a minimum of 18 months, much longer than most jail sentences involving drugs.
One woman asked about other substances being mixed with heroin, saying that her brother - a drug addict - lost his life because he took some of the drug that had been laced with fentanyl.
Scanlon confirmed that fentanyl-laced heroin has been showing up on the streets, and it has been causing deaths because it is more powerful.
But even more dangerous, he said, is the appearance of heroin laced with carfentanyl which is used as an elephant tranquilizer. In one location where it first showed up, he said, 27 deaths were reported in 27 hours.
Heroin laced with carfentanyl has not yet been discovered in this area, but it is coming.
“People need to be aware of how deadly it is,” Scanlon explained afterward about the opiate epidemic. “They need to realize it can truly affect anyone. They need to realize they can actually make a difference themselves.”