Panel sees trend from heroin to crack

Assistant DA says naloxone contributing to decline in overdose deaths in Cambria

EBENSBURG — A trend away from heroin and toward crack cocaine might be part of the reason Cambria County’s overdose death rate has decreased, panelists at a public hearing were told Wednesday.

Assistant District Attorney Arnold Bernard Jr. noted the move toward crack during remarks at a Center For Rural Pennsylvania public hearing, in which a number of experts spoke about the opioid-related issues that have become a problem for the local community.

Bernard talked about law enforcement’s role in combating local drug problems.

He said programs like Coffee with a Cop have been implemented to put police officers in more frequent contact with community members to “foster police-citizen interactions.”

Local officers also have increased their presence at Johnstown’s passenger train station — sometimes with drug-sniffing dogs. The station, Bernard said, is a “major hub” for drug trafficking, as it links the Cambria County city to larger markets in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

In more rural areas with smaller police forces, officers have been encouraged to use naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, he said. That is especially important as Cambria County had the second highest per capita overdose rate in the state in 2016, Bernard said.

Bernard said naloxone, which has been widely promoted, has contributed to the decline in Cambria’s overdose deaths.

Later in the hearing, state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, took aim at naloxone, telling those in attendance that he has heard from both emergency responders and the public that they are frustrated with drug users who have overdosed and have been revived by the medicine numerous times.

He said there has to be “some kind of consequence” and asked whether those who are revived are referred to treatment centers.

Kate Porter, a prevention program specialist with the Cambria County Drug Coalition, said yes, but only if they are transported to a hospital. After an overdose, a drug user can refuse being transported to a hospital.

And Porter admitted there was a case where a drug user was revived nine times before getting off of opioids.

Bernard answered, too, explaining that there was discussion about having local law enforcement officials speak to overdose victims about treatment possibilities, but it would be a major burden.

Answering a question posed by state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, who led the meeting, Bernard revealed that the District Attorney’s Office is in favor of the reinstitution of mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug crimes because they can be used as bartering tools to encourage guilty pleas, which are important in a county where an average of eight months passes between a drug arrest and trial.

Tracy Selak, the county’s acting Drug and Alcohol Program administrator, told stories about loved ones that she’s lost as a result of opioid abuse. Fighting the negative stigmas of addiction was chief among the numerous topics she spoke about.

Yaw agreed, explaining that just because a person is addicted “doesn’t mean they’re a morally deficient person.”

After that discussion, Amanda Cope, chief operating officer with Positive Recovery Solutions, spoke about her organization’s success using the drug Vivitrol, which helps curb cravings for opioid addicts while blocking them from getting high.

Yaw said the Wednesday hearing was the 14th of its kind to be hosted throughout the state and outlined the importance of the opioid problem, which kills 15 people a day in Pennsylvania and 170 a day in the entire United States.

“It is really an all-hands-on-deck solution if we are ever going to address it,” he said. “It’s not going to be an overnight success.”

The event was hosted by state Sen. Wayne Langer­holc, R-Cambria, who said he was happy to have the hearing in his home county.

“If one life is saved, it’s worth it,” he said.

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