Town hall meeting
State Rep. Daniel McNeill, D-133rd, called a town hall meeting at Whitehall High School Feb. 24 to highlight the increased levels of heroin addiction in the Lehigh Valley. Two hundred-plus interested residents attended.
A host of speakers presented brief speeches on their role in combating the epidemic of heroin abuse.
“Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no one in the county jail who is there because of his addiction,” Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said. “Our goal is to get those with an addiction into a rehab facility.”
That said and acknowledged, there are not enough rehab centers, according to Martin, who said he is pessimistic about winning the battle against addiction.
“Heroin is available on the street cheaper than prescription drugs. As long as there is a high-profit motive for the dealer, it is hard to stop,” he said.
Dr. Matthew Cook, a toxicologist with Lehigh Valley Health Network, explained the chain of addiction. “After a serious injury, a patient is prescribed a heroin derivative or opioid to relieve pain. Once the injury heals, the patient looks for continued pain relief eventually moving from stealing prescription drugs from friends and family to seeking relief with street drugs,” he said. “Most people don’t start off taking drugs with the intent of abusing drugs.”
The Lehigh County Sheriff’s Department was questioned on its handling of drug dealers, specifically during a presentation by Catherine Sechler, who said her son, Daniel Dulin, died from an overdose of street heroin when he was 33.
“I had his cellphone with all the numbers of the dealers and who he contacted,” Sechler said. “But the investigators would not even take the phone and follow up. I still have [his cell phone] three years later,” she said. “I still get comments on Facebook about what a great person he was.”
Other parents had similar stories, alleging investigators were indifferent to their plight. Complaints were echoed about the length of time it takes to get a dealer off the street.
Plenty of information is available on opioid addiction and its inherent danger. Mary Ellen Jackson, from Heroin and Opioid Prevention Education (HOPE), presented her organization’s program. HOPE provides a student assistance program for schools. She encouraged those in attendance to ensure schools are presenting her program.
Devin Reaves, a recovering addict with Young People in Recovery, outlined the group’s national programs and his interactions with recovering addicts. Addiction is predominately in the under-40 crowd.
Nicholas Labar, a recovering addict, relayed his story of addiction.
“When I had my first heroin high … I determined that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Labar said, adding he was in and out of 14 rehab centers until he finally faced his addiction.
According to Layne Turner, administrator of the county’s drug and alcohol division, “Our doors are always open. We can provide support whether you have insurance or not. Rumors say that we are out of funding, but that is not true. The county provides us funding, and we will work with addicts and get them into a rehab center.”
Support runs the gauntlet of assistance. Reaves advocates recovery high schools, and a proposal is making its way through the state to approve at least one such high school. According to Reaves, drug court works, and he advocates its expanded use.
A common complaint among those caring for addicts is that when abusers are taken into custody for an offense, they go through detox and are released back on the streets. Detox is only a temporary cessation, and the addicts can relapse quickly.
A mother of an addict was concerned about state restrictions on Suboxone.
“It can be used to reduce cravings while an addict is undergoing rehab,” Turner said. “The latest approach is to use Vivitrol. Once an addict gets all the opiates out of his system, Vivitrol can be given. It acts as a block for 28 days. Even if an addict shoots up, he gets no high,” he said. The drug costs $1,300 a dose.
“Right now, we don’t have anyone cleared to administer it,” Turner said.
Police carry Nar-Can, an antidote that can be given to an addict suffering from a seizure. Citizens can and often do carry the injectable drug. Advocate groups recommend the drug, but it does require limited training before its use. Martin emphasized getting the training before using the drug. Nar-Can is available over the counter.
“Addicts keep trying to recapture that first high, and when they can’t get it from prescription drugs, they go to street drugs, which are spiked with chemicals to give a bigger rush,” Cook said in a private conversation.
During the town hall, Cook was called to the emergency room.
McNeill suggested a caucus be formed in Harrisburg to further discuss the issue. He advocated a march on the Capitol to make elected officials aware of the problem. One support group has a Sept. 20 rally planned.