Heroin epidemic tears through rural Pennsylvania

    A bipartisan legislative agency is calling the spread of heroin through Pennsylvania an epidemic.

    During the course of four hearings over the summer, more than 50experts and concerned citizens testified about the problem. Those discussion have led to specific recommendations for trying to halt overdoses.

    A successful effort would mix education and prevention, with law enforcement and treatment, according to the summary report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

    Acknowledging the problem is the first order of business, said the report. Other recommendations call for increasing sentences for heroin traffickers and dealers, as well as expanding eligibility for some state rehab programs.

    Drug overdose deaths started to spike in 2011 in Pennsylvania, and much of the increase is tied to heroin.

    “This epidemic affects individuals of every age, gender, race, and background,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming and Center board chairman. “The increased use of heroin, which often has roots in the abuse of prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin, has catapulted Pennsylvania to seventh in the nation for drug-related overdose deaths in the latest federal statistics.”

    Stigma can surround drug use and abuse, complicating efforts to get a complete picture of the problem, he said.

    “We’re not sure we have accurate reporting in the state. And there are a lot of reasons for that,” Yaw said. “Some people don’t want — if there’s a choice on how you can list a death — they don’t want it listed as an overdose of some sort.”

    Rural communities often have to turn to more urban areas to get a complete autopsy on a body.

    Meanwhile, a state Senate committee has passed a bill giving heroin users a pass from criminal charges if calling 911 to save a friend from an overdose.

    Gov. Tom Corbett has said he supports the measure.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.