Editor’s note: This is the third in a five-day series about heroin and its impact on Centre County. Next we will look at the effect on medical and counseling services and then how the drugs hit families, communities and addicts themselves.
Central Pennsylvania has gotten used to a certain kind of news: sweeping arrests for selling heroin.
Sometimes, they come from the Office of Attorney General. Sometimes they come from drug task forces. Sometimes they are prosecuted in federal court by the U.S. attorney. No matter, press releases come out and mug shots are releases of people, old and young, throughout the area for trafficking in deadly drugs.
In 2005, it was Taji “Verbal” Lee, a New Jersey man brought down in a ring worth more than a million dollars in products brought in from the East Coast. He is now at Mahanoy state prison with at least 20 years to go on his sentence.
His arrest was announced in a splashy press conference with then-Attorney General Tom Corbett.
But 11 years later, the arrests keep coming, just like the drugs.
In 2014, there was a roundup in February with drugs coming in from Williamsport to Lock Haven to Bellefonte to State College.
A few months later, it was a bust in Philipsburg, where heroin was being sold through a towing company.
Part of it is addiction. The number of people using opioids and heroin is increasing. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s heroin threat assessment summary for 2016, it is the “greatest drug threat” in the Mid-Atlantic, up to 48 from 8 percent in 2007.
Part of it is economics.
According to the OAG’s Anthony Sassano, the heroin that is sold on a Philadelphia street corner for $5 can go for four times that in State College.
And now, it isn’t just the local dealers in Philly noticing how lucrative Pennsylvania’s drug trade could be.
The DEA’s report identifies a new threat from Mexican traffickers looking to move from the West Coast.
“... Some Mexican trafficking organizations are moving their operations into suburban and rural (areas) where they believe they can more easily conceal their activities,” the threat assessment summary states.
In Centre County, the effect is seen on Wednesday mornings, when preliminary hearings fill up the main courtroom at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte.
A few years ago, a central court session would be a list of about 40 people, but District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says she has watched it climb to 60, 70, sometimes 80 or more people waiting for disposition. But not all of those people are there for possession or distribution charges.
“I would say that people don’t always realize that the drug addiction and drug distribution affects our community in a lot of ways that do not have the word drug in the title,” she said.
“When addictions rise and the dealers are increasing their activity because of demand, we have more burglaries, car burglaries, rip offs, but what they really are are drug crimes, drug-motivated crimes,” said Parks Miller. “We’ve had a stabbing motivated by drugs, robberies with guns motivated by drugs. The docket doesn’t always reveal, but we see big increases.”
Ferguson Township police Chief Diane Conrad agrees.
“People just need more money to feed their addiction,” she said. “They need cash fast.”
Conrad also pointed to other kinds of theft, such as theft of prescription drugs. While an opioid addiction can start with a prescription addiction that escalates, she said sometimes people who need drugs look for another means to satisfy their addiction by stealing someone else’s legal medication.
Both see the newest responses to the opioid crisis rooted not in penalizing addicts but in providing help on different levels.
There are the prescription drug drop-off boxes that many departments offer to take unused medication off the street. Conrad says her department’s were installed last month and have already been emptied twice as people willingly take advantage of the program.
Then there is the move toward creating a drug court to deal with addiction-related crimes — similar to the DUI court Centre County has already established — so that people get help rather than just handcuffs.
“There’s just no substitute for looking for long-term treatment,” Parks Miller said. “This community needs it.”
There is the life-saving medication, Narcan, that officers are carrying to help stop an overdose in its tracks.
And there is the way officers look at those in need.
“We want to help people. We’re not necessarily looking to make an arrest,” said Conrad, although she acknowledged sometimes that has to happen, and it might be the best thing at the time.
“Sometimes and in some situations, an arrest helps. It can be the only way to get them in custody and away from their drugs,” she said. “But if a person walked into the station today and said ‘I’m an addict and I need help,’ we’re not going to look for a reason to arrest them. We’re here for crime prevention and keeping people safe.”
Parks Miller said she sees a big difference between the people who use drugs and the people using people who use drugs.
“We have to consider all prongs. One is cutting off the supply,” she said. “Dealers are cutting their product with deadly substances, like fentanyl.”
Since 2014, fentanyl-laced heroin overdoses have killed a number of people in Pennsylvania.
“They’re putting people’s lives at risks. Dealers move into an area and poison people,” said Parks Miller. “But we also have to support the rehabilitative efforts of people who make mistakes.”