2 years in, heroin task force pushes forward

Sean Philip Cotter

This year, local law enforcement has used Narcan to save more than 140 people overdosing on heroin.

The anti-overdose drug saves the addict's life — but that's where help ends.

That's where The Rase Project is supposed to help out, said Neill Dickson, the organization's coordinator for York, Adams, Perry and Cumberland counties. After a Narcan save, a hospital or police department alerts the organization, which sends someone to meet the person who overdosed before they're discharged from the hospital.

"That's when we talk about their treatment options," said Dickson, a recovering addict himself.

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They call it the "warm handoff," and it's part of the organization's efforts to fill some of the holes it sees in current system of dealing with drug abuse.

Dickson raised the issue at the York County Heroin Task Force presentation at York College on Monday night, when several officials and people affected by the drug issue sweeping the area and nation talked about the problem.

York County Coroner Pam Gay speaks at a York County Heroin Task Force presentation at York College.

Presentation: The York County Heroin Task Force has given more or less the same presentation dozens of times over the nearly three years that heroin has been a big factor in York County.

A video clip documents the story of Danny Sciarretta, who overdosed and died in 2004 at age 26. His mom, Charlene Sciarretta, gets up and speaks to the crowd, whether it's in a big hall in Delta, a center in urban York City or a college lecture hall, as was the case Monday night, in front of the crowd of several dozen. As always, she talks about how there is no profile for a heroin addict — they come from rich and poor families, from the city, countryside and suburbs, she says.

The video says he died 10 years ago — it's been featured in this presentation for the two-plus years this task force has been in operation since the sudden spike in opioid-overdose deaths began to tear through York County in 2014.

So far in 2016, 32 people have died of confirmed heroin-related overdoses, and 21 more deaths are suspected to have to do with heroin but are pending confirmation, said York County Coroner Pam Gay, who co-chairs the heroin task force. She said almost all suspected cases end up being confirmed.

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So even with the 140-plus Narcan saves, that number is approaching 2015's year-end total of 65 heroin-related deaths, which in turn was up from 62 in 2014. In 2013, 17 people died from overdosing on heroin.

Actions: Local law enforcement started carrying Narcan in the spring of 2015 and saved more than 100 people through the end of that year, Gay said.

Along with that, York City has implemented a needle-exchange program similar to ones that exist in Lancaster and Harrisburg, and the state Legislature passed a "good Samaritan" law that gives a pass in some circumstances to drug users who stick around to call police and help others who are overdosing. Gay also cited the recent prescription drug monitoring program created in Pennsylvania as a way of reining in the amount of opioids legally prescribed.

"This (heroin crisis) is directly linked to the prescription opioid epidemic in this country," she said. She said a large number of heroin addicts got hooked through use of prescription drugs.

There's more to do, of course, Gay said. The task force has been looking around the country at programs other areas have been using to combat the onslaught of the opioid crisis, she said. She's excited about the Rase Project initiative, she said.

"This is a drug epidemic like we've never seen, so we have to think outside the box," she said.

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Chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday, who also co-chairs the task force, said he wants the state to bring back mandatory minimum sentences for people who commit drug crimes with a gun. He'd also like to see some nuance to the charge of drug delivery resulting in death, one he checks to see if the district attorney's office can apply to every overdose death. Right now, that charge doesn't view one user giving another user a baggie of heroin any differently than it does a drug trafficker who's profiting from the drug trade, he said, and that needs to change.

"The amount of heroin flowing into York County is astronomical," he said.

— Sean Cotter covers York City for The York Dispatch. Contact him atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.

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