Toomey roundtable brings local drug abuse into focus

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey met with local leaders in law enforcement, government, medical and addiction recovery last week to discuss one of Bucks County’s most devastating issues: drug abuse.

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The roundtable took place at the Bensalem Police Department, in a township that has seen a significant rise in drug abuse over the last decade. The discussion covered issues like diversion of prescription medications, prevention and recovery for addicts. One topic in particular came into focus during the discussion.

“I’ve had discussions like this all around the state,” Toomey said afterward. “One of the things that was emphasized more forcefully today than some of my other stops is the challenges that law enforcement face.”

“Geography presents a unique set of circumstances,” Toomey continued, referencing Lower Bucks’ proximity to Philadelphia. “But it’s just a variation on the theme.”

Local officials said that most of the issues of enforcement are state-level, though Toomey is pushing federal legislation that would reduce the diversion of prescription drugs. This means drugs that are prescribed legally, like Percocet or OxyContin, are amassed by patients going to multiple pharmacies with multiple prescriptions and selling them illegally for profit.

“We’re seeing an overabundance of prescription drugs,” state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson said during the roundtable. “When people can’t afford paying for that pill … they’re right down to the badlands and buying a dime bag.”

Toomey believes an amendment he authored with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act could help fight this problem at its source. The amendment would crack down on Medicare beneficiaries with a history of drug abuse by placing them under a single pharmacy and prescriber, something Medicaid and other insurers already do.

“This legislation would make it impossible for someone to divert drugs that way,” Toomey said.

The bill passed 94–1 in the Senate and has not yet been voted on in the House. If the bill does go through, Toomey said, President Obama indicated that he will sign it.

Those at the roundtable seemed to agree that this would help the drug problem long-term, but the immediate issue of enforcement and prevention for opioid and heroin users still stands before them.

Bensalem, for example, has seen a 58-percent rise in drug overdoses from the first three months in 2015 to the first three months in 2016, Public Safety Director Fred Harran said. Narcan, a medication that temporarily blocks the effects of an overdose, has saved 22 lives in Bensalem and about 100 countywide since its implementation in Bucks less than a year ago.

“Narcan is great, but it’s a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery,” Harran said.

He pointed to decreased state funding for police, legislation that limits enforcement and Bensalem’s “lovely motels” as issues that affect Lower Bucks directly.

Bensalem police officers were previously drawing blood from every DUI offense. Forty-three percent of DUI offenders, Harran said, are not under the influence of alcohol, but of some sort of narcotics, prescription or illicit. State law now disallows that practice.

Harran also had issue with the immunity clause in the Narcan bill, which provides immunity from prosecution for those responding to and reporting overdoses. Previously, police would flip them to nab the “bigger fish.”

They also implemented policies believed to crack down on diversion. Township officers do not provide police reports to people who report theft of prescription drugs when nothing else is taken from their homes, for example.

“If you have a police report, some doctors will refill it,” Harran said. “They’re basically making up a false report.”

Bensalem has 17 hotels and motels with over 1,900 rooms, where much of local drug activity takes place. This makes up half of the total in Bucks, however, taxes on hotels are distributed throughout the county, not just in the communities immediately surrounding them.

“We’re not getting the funding to put more cops on the street to attack the opioid problem,” Harran said and referenced how more public focus lands on shootings and killings. “The poor girl who died [of an overdose] outside Neshaminy Mall is not newsworthy. I have a lot more of that than I have active shooters killing in this county.”

Diversion is just one piece of a complicated issue, but Toomey sees its prevention as necessary for a state that needs help.

“Pennsylvania is being hit as hard as any other state, and there’s no part of Pennsylvania that is immune,” he said. “These nuances change, but the fundamental problem stays the same.”