”Unreal” Overdose Spike Has Officials Ready to Fight Opioid Drugs

63 people overdosed in Bensalem over the past month, but the drug problem is much larger


An alarming number of drug overdoses has officials in one suburban Philadelphia township gearing up for a fight.

In the past month, 63 people in Bensalem, Pa., have overdosed on opioid drugs like heroin and prescription pain killers that include oxycodone and vicodin says township Director of Public Safety Fred Harran.

"It’s just unreal," he said. "A couple of weeks ago, we had actually two unrelated deaths in the same day of a heroin overdose and last week we actually made an arrest locking up the people that supplied those individuals with the heroin."

While heroin is widely known as a dangerous and severely addictive narcotic that’s long been a target of the war on drugs, Harran says it’s the prescription painkillers that are a bigger source of concern.

"I’ve had it with these drugs and these people that are overprescribing them," he said. "They are a clear threat, as if they were terrorists, they are a threat to this nation. I don’t have an impact nationally, but I’m going to do everything in our power here in Bensalem...to combat these drugs and we’re going to push them back and we’re going to hold the line."

Between 80 and 90-percent of the crimes committed in the town are tied in one way to drugs, according to Harran. He says the drug seekers are both a mix of local residents and visitors traveling to the town to get high.

Harran and other public safety officials have been meeting to determine an attack plan to cut down on drug use and availability. The director says he’s not ready to release every detail about the plan, but said the department’s actions would be "groundbreaking."

"We’re going after every source that’s supplying these drugs to the street," he said. "Every source. And I’m not talking about a back-alley dealer in Kensington. That’s not what I’m talking about, because no one is producing vicodin in their garage."

Harran is quick to say that Bensalem is still a safe, family-friendly place and is not the only town facing these opioid drug issues. And he’s right.

"We’re willing to note that there’s a problem nationally and we’re going to do our bit locally," he said.

A new report released on Monday from the Trust for America’s Health found Pennsylvania has the 14th highest rate of drug overdose deaths. The report found the Commonwealth had 15.3 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents in 2010. Most of those deaths involved the use of prescription drugs.

In Philadelphia, city officials have seen what they call a startling spike in addiction rates, deaths and confiscations by police of opioids like prescription pills and heroin. The city’s Office of Addiction Services released findings of a new report on Tuesday that found two-fold increases in overdose deaths related to certian opioid painkillers. The pill addiction is also fueling heroin use in the city, according to officials.

Over a 24-hour period last week, a string of five heroin overdoses struck Camden, N.J. sending the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office and Camden County Metro Police scrambling to find where the drug was being sold.

"Law enforcement is working to determine the source of the heroin and in the meantime is issuing a warning that a particularly dangerous type of heroin is being sold in Camden," said prosecutor’s office spokesman Jason Laughlin.

Nationally, drug overdose is the leading cause of injury death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdose deaths have jumped 102-percent from 1999 to 2010 and as of the last reporting in 2010, 60-percent of those deaths were related to pharmaceuticals.

The CDC also found that of the 38,329 overdose deaths in 2010 that involved pharmaceuticals, 75-percent involved some form of opioid.

Back in Pennsylvania, state lawmakers are making a push to provide more oversight to the filling of prescription painkillers.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), who represents Bensalem, has introduced House Bill 1694 that would create the Pharmaceutical Accountability Monitoring System (PAMS).

"This is an absolute epidemic across the state of Pennsylvania. No part of the state has been left out. These prescription drugs, especially these opioid prescription drugs, are all over the place," he said. "It’s absolutely fueling another epidemic of heroin because these kids, our young people, are getting hooked on these prescription drugs and switching over to heroin after a time."

"The drug companies are like the minor leagues of the heroin. They’re producing all this heroin because these kids are getting hooked on these prescription drugs," he said.

The computer database system would require pharmacists to log every time they dispense a controlled substance. That record would include when a prescription was written, dispensed, the amount dispensed and the dosage as well as information about the patient, the doctor that prescribed it and the pharmacist.

DiGirolamo, who chairs the Pa. House’s Human Services committee, says PAMS will allow pharmacists and doctors to look up a person’s history of using any addictive drug. They think it will allow them to spot a potential drug abuser ahead of prescribing another set of painkillers.

“At that point they’re going to be able to refuse to refill the prescription, refuse to write the prescription and hopefully do some counseling on help and addiction and treatment and where they might be able to go for help,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and federal and state law enforcement officials would also have limited access to PAMS’ records as related to an active investigation. It will be run by the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Similar systems exist in other states, but DiGirolamo says Pennsylvania’s legislation is some of the most comprehensive. He’s hoping to get the bill put up for a vote in the Pa. House next Wednesday.

“It’s just heartbreaking what’s going on,” he said. “We really got to get a handle on this.”

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, vince.lattanzio@nbcuni.com or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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