In November 2014, I wrote an op-ed about what the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office was doing to address the opioid crisis. Nearly five years later, the statistics remain alarming and the solutions tough. But that shouldn’t obscure that we are making progress.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Pennsylvania remains among the states with the highest rates of overdose, and drug misuse has led to more than 15,000 deaths in Pennsylvania since 2015, largely driven by prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl. Statewide, fentanyl’s growing availability contributed to a 65 percent increase in overdose deaths between 2015 and 2017.
Despite these statistics, I am encouraged.
As of 2016, Pennsylvania’s opioid prescription rates dropped from sixth in the country all the way down to 26th. I am also proud to say that Bucks County’s citizens lead the state in proper medication disposal, with more than 127,000 pounds of expired and unused medications collected since 2010, never to be diverted to hurt or kill anyone.
And despite rising fentanyl-related deaths, overdose deaths in Pennsylvania related to other narcotics sharply decreased in 2016 and 2017 from their peak in 2015. Here in Bucks County, we saw our overdose deaths drop last year after a steady climb to their high in 2017.
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office leads law enforcement in our unified fight against drug and medication abuse by building on our prior lifesaving and crime-fighting efforts and employing new and innovative tools. We have created a county detective Drug Strike Force to zero in on those responsible for dealing drugs in our community, and launched a “Push Out the Pusher” campaign to empower citizens to anonymously report drug dealing in their neighborhoods. We have been particularly aggressive in prosecuting drug dealers whose drug deliveries have resulted in a drug user’s death.
But the adage remains true: We cannot arrest our way out of this crisis.
As district attorney of Bucks County, I have five goals when someone with a drug addiction comes into contact with our criminal justice system. First, keep them alive. Second, get them treatment. Third, reintegrate them into their family, employment, and community. Fourth, resolve their criminal issues. Fifth, provide every available resource to recover from addiction so they do not re-offend.
When someone who is addicted remains on the path of recovery and no longer commits crimes due to their drug addiction, we all win.
To achieve these goals, we work proactively with law enforcement and community leaders like the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission. For instance, every police and probation officer in our county now carries Narcan, a lifesaving drug that counteracts the fatal effects of a opioid overdose. We also recently implemented a program through which a person struggling with addiction can go to one of five participating police departments across the county to get paired with a “navigator” who immediately begins working to help them find treatment.
We’ve created a pretrial diversionary program for many people arrested on drug charges, where in exchange for getting immediate and successful treatment, their criminal charges will be dismissed. For those more persistently enmeshed in the criminal justice system due to substance abuse, the focus remains on getting them treatment either through Drug Court, while on supervision, or while they’re in prison — whichever is most consistent with community protection.
There are still no easy solutions to the opioid crisis, but helping those addicted to get treatment while punishing the dealers is the most balanced approach for the criminal justice system to take.
As district attorney, that has been and will continue to be, my approach to dealing with criminal defendants who suffer from substance abuse disorder. I will continue to work with the law enforcement community and community leaders to solve this crisis. I hope that five years from now, I will have no need to write another op-ed about our efforts to battle this scourge.
Matthew D. Weintraub is a career prosecutor and district attorney of Bucks County.