Corbett, Our Town address drugs

Operation Our Town continues to make a difference, but the fight against drug use and resulting crime continues in Blair County.

“You are making a difference. I use you as a model. What you are doing has made a difference. We need to bring all law enforcement together to work on this, but we need the community more than anything else. And that is what you have done,” Gov. Tom Corbett told members of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club Thursday at The Casino at Lakemont Park.

Formed in March 2007, Operation Our Town is a community and business partnership designed to promote healthy neighborhoods and protect citizens from illegal drug use and resulting crime.

As attorney general, Corbett was one of the early partners in putting the program together, said Michael Fiore, Operation Our Town president.

“When Mike and Phil [Devorris, OOT secretary] came to me eight years ago, I told them the best thing to do is start from the ground up. We still need to get to the root of the cause, the demand. One way to address that is to provide education at all levels. We believe that is the long-term solution. There is not an overnight fix,” Corbett said.

“Early childhood education is important. The definition of prevention is early childhood education. Prevention is the ultimate cure for drugs,” Fiore said.

“Gov. Corbett has always been a proponent of early childhood education. He has increased funding. He knows what it is all about.”

Since its inception, Operation Our Town has raised more than $2.7 million and granted $2.3 million to the community.

“This has made a major impact. You [businesses] are the ones making the difference. This is not a battle. It is a war and will last a long time,” Fiore said.

The drug trends in the area remain similar to a year ago but with one major change, said Regional Director Anthony Sassano of the Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation.

“The big difference has been the increase in heroin; there has been a tremendous increase. Heroin is the number one threat. The biggest drug on the street is heroin. We are finding opiate prescriptions are the new gateway drugs to heroin,” Sassano said. “People have died from heroin before they pull the needle out of their arm. That is how potent it is.”

There were 25 drug overdose deaths in the county in 2013, Fiore said.

A new drug threat is Zohydro, Sassano said.

“It is available on the street and 10 times more powerful than Vicodin. We will have a lot of people dying because of this drug,” Sassano said.

A disturbing trend is people buying Suboxone and methadone on the street.

“These people go to the clinics and sell them and go and buy heroin. Crack and powder cocaine remains a threat in this area,” Sassano said.

Fiore said drug arrests in Blair County have gone from 607 in 2007 to as high as 640 in 2012. The number dropped to 485 in 2013.

Fiore said he is concerned that the number of calls to the Push Out the Pusher hotline has dropped from a high of 1,756 in 2009 to 650 in 2013.

“This is not good. We are loosing a little focus. We are not getting the calls. We have to be community policemen. Those calls are important to law enforcement to eradicate drug abuse,” Fiore said.

“Maybe the number of calls are down because you are making a difference,” Corbett said. “You need to keep the community involved. It is the community that can keep this a manageable issue.”