Villanova Law hosts policy forum on drug epidemic
RADNOR>> Better funding of programs and better treatment options in and out of state correctional facilities are needed to help a growing drug problem, particularly opioids, in the commonwealth, said state leaders and scholars Friday morning.
The need for better laws and procedures in combating a drug problem that has killed at least 3,500 Pennsylvanians last year was one topic of discussion at an allday forum called “Understanding the Opioid Epidemic” at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law, focusing on all aspects of the drug problem through the criminal justice system.
One panel said policy and legislative action will fix a system that “overpunishes” addicts instead of helping them.
“Our approach to drug policy over the past four decades has basically been lock people up,” said Secretary for Pennsylvania Department of Corrections John Wetzel. “And when the drug problem gets greater, lock more people up for longer. The result of that has been an increase in prison and jail population in the state and throughout the country.”
According to Wetzel, the number of criminals who are sent to state institutions with a drug problem has doubled in the last few years from 6 to 12 percent of 50,000 persons.
Corrections is the third biggest portion of the state’s annual budget at $2.4 billion, and Wetzel called it ironic that while corrections gets more funding year-over-year, more services in other budget sections would lead to a reduction in the prison population.
“But again, because drugs are illegal, we have one lens, and that’s the lens of arrest people and put them in a system that has, historically, been illprepared to respond to addiction,” said Wetzel.
Wetzel did say that treatment services are available in state institutions.
In addition to that, a pilot study is currently underway in a handful of State Correctional Institutes, including Chester, for Medication Assisted Treatment, a pharmacological and behavior therapy program to help overcome challenges of addiction.
Methadone and Naltrexone – a 30-day opioid antagonist - are two types of drugs that are used in MAT programs.
“(It offers inmates) the ability to avoid some of the stresses and pitfalls associ-
ated with returning to the situations that got them in trouble in the first place,” said Drexel University Assistant Professor Jordan Hyatt, PhD.
Hyatt referenced a study saying inmates in long-term methadone treatment have lower rates of committing crimes, and 65 percent of inmates relapsed with only behavioral counseling over 25 percent who also received methadone.
In Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institutes, inmates in the pilot study would be getting an injection of Naltrexone.
For civilians looking to seek help for their addiction, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the opening of 45 Centers for Excellence statewide by Jan. 1, which provides treatment and resources for people with opioid-related substance abuse.
Crozer Chester Medical
Center has been named one of the centers.
In another way to curb the opioid problem, Pennsylvania recently became one of the last states to initiate a prescription drug monitoring program to track all prescribed controlled substances and prevent abuse of those drugs, especially opioids.
Furthermore, a bill was signed into law two years ago by then-Gov. Tom Corbett to allow the administration of the opioid reversal drug Naloxone by police officers and firefighters. Delaware County was the first in the state to have a police officer save a life with the drug.
Over the course of the summer the PA HOPE – heroin, opioid prevention and education – Caucus held policy hearings all over the state for lawmakers to be better educated on how big the problem is.
Still, state Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-191, of Philadelphia, said she has heard criticism that the state Legislature
shouldn’t have to respond and “should be on top of it.”
“But we’re in this crisis just like the rest of our neighbors,” she said. “We’re all facing this crisis at this time where the alarm is sounding, so we’re all responding.
“This is one of (the times) where we have to pause and really take a moment and examine to make sure that our response thus far has been effective and what we can do in the future to ensure that we can curtail these deaths, these overdoses.”
When the House returns to session on Monday, 13 bills legislating different areas of the opioid epidemic are sill waiting to be considered. A rally in the capital rotunda with lawmakers on this issue is set for Tuesday.
“We’re doing something about this and we’re hearing how critical of an hour we’re in and we’re responding to it accordingly,” said McClinton.
A packed classroom at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law during Friday’s policy forum “Understanding the Opioid Epidemic.” Throughout the day, panels discussed all aspects of the drug problem within the criminal justice system.