Heroin epidemic hitting close to home

Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-day series about heroin and its effect on Centre County. On Wednesday, in addition to coverage of the town hall, we will look closer at the federal and state response. Additional installments will look at the effect on law enforcement; medical and counseling services; and families and addicts.

Deadly illegal fentanyl-laced heroin coming into U.S. from China.

Philadelphia man arrested with 577 bags of heroin.

Thirty-five arrested in Blair County drug bust.

Man dies in bus bathroom with needle in his arm.

If you don’t think central Pennsylvania, or Centre County in particular, has a drug problem, the headlines should convince you otherwise.

In recent years, heroin began to pop up like dandelions after years of being underground in Happy Valley.

Every week, if not every day, someone is arrested for possession or distribution or conspiracy. Someone announces a new reaction to the opioid problem. Someone dies.

In August 2013, Emily Rossman died. In January 2014, it was Elizabeth Smeltzer. And more and more and more.

“On April 7th, (my son) was found dead in his bedroom with a needle in his arm,” said one heartbroken mother. “Yet another victim to the vicious heroin epidemic sweeping our community. He was only 30 years old. I’ve often referred to him as ‘the best part of me.’ He was my everything.”

The problem is obvious. Between hardcore heroin and the seemingly softer path of prescription drugs, opioids have climbed to the top of the drug food chain.

If the hole the drugs are digging is deep and wide, the reactions and responses are just as broad.

There are the federal responses. Last week President Barack Obama signed legislation that he called “modest steps” to address the crisis.

It isn’t an executive versus legislature thing. It isn’t Democrat and Republican. U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, has pushed for action, too.

“There is not a community across our nation where lives and families have not been affected by this epidemic,” Thompson said this month.

“This is not a partisan problem and one we must all work to solve. As such, I have met with Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas to discuss the most appropriate path forward and I am happy this bill has received the support of Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Wolf. I now urge the U.S. Senate to take action to make sure we can fight this epidemic and help our communities address the plight of addiction.”

Because yes, there is a state response. Gov. Tom Wolf has made it a priority. So has Centre County Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte.

“The epidemic we face is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue,” Benninghoff said. “It is a crisis impacting Pennsylvanians from every region, background and walk of life. Opioid addiction does not discriminate — it is killing our young people, our veterans, our friends, our family members and our neighbors. Working together is critical so we can get our arms around this growing crisis before it takes more precious lives.”

Centre County will be facing the heroin issue head on at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a town hall meeting at Mount Nittany Medical Center. Sponsored by the Centre County HOPE Initiative, the event is billed as the first of a series, aimed at identifying the problem.

The panelists and speakers are as diverse as the ideas on the issue. There will be state voices like Benninghoff and state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, and the state Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Gary Tennis. There will be a county presence with Commissioner Steve Dershem, Judge Pamela Ruest and Centre County Drug and Alcohol’s Cathy Arbogast. State College police Sgt. Kelly Aston will represent law enforcement. There will be medical and counseling people and Penn State.

But one of the most important items on the agenda is not the prepared remarks from officials. It is the question-and-answer period, a time for concerned parents and community members to talk about what is happening and what can be done.

“Please come and learn the signs of drug use. Be educated,” said that mother who lost her child in April. “You may not think you need it. I felt the same way. Addiction is an illness. Please. I beg of you, don’t ignore the signs. No parent should ever have to go to a funeral home to chose an urn for their child.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce


What: Town hall meeting on heroin

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Galen and Nancy Dreibelbis Auditorium, Mount Nittany Medical Center, 1800 E. Park Ave., State College

Info: 234-6727, www.mountnittany.org