|State rep. Dan McNeill with DA John Morganelli|
Physically, it would be hard to find two people more different than Northampton County DA John Morganelli and State Rep Dan McNeill. Morganelli is small in stature, but is a fearless prosecutor, with 25 successful homicide cases under his belt McNeill is a tough former ironworker who dwarfs a podium.But he's been deeply touched by the heroin epidemic ripping across the Lehigh Valley and the entire state. In recent weeks, he's teamed up with Lehigh County DA Jim Martin to raise public awareness of this crisis with town halls in Whitehall and Coplay. Now he's joining forces Morganelli as well to combat a serious public health problem. They both addressed their efforts following a meeting at the Northampton County Courthouse on April 14.
In recent months, Morganelli has arrested drug dealers who have sold heroin to victims who've overdosed and died. But Morganelli completely agrees with Lehigh County DA Jim Martin's assessment that it's impossible to "prosecute the problem away."
Heroin is now the biggest drug problem in the state. Its abuse is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the state, surpassing accidental deaths, claims Morganelli. He also referred to statistics showing that accidental overdose deaths have been reported in 30 Lehigh Valley communities in 2014 and 2015.
In McNeill's town halls audiences have been frustrated at police for failing to take dealers off the streets, doctors for prescribing addictive painkillers and our health system for making it so difficult for families to find and then afford treatment for their loved ones.
At one of those town halls, McNeill invited Sharon Stauffer, a mother from Emmaus. She lost her son Ryan to a heroin overdose in 2010. He died with two needles stuck in his arm and eight empty bags of heroin by his side. Her poignant advice? "If your gut's telling you there's something wrong, there's something wrong."
Morganelli, who is one of three Democrats seeking his party's nomination for state Attorney General, said it's time to "change strategy" for accidental overdoses. "We have not been winning the war on drugs," he conceded. He has a three-pronged plan
First, Hit it at its source
He'd stop the flow of heroin into Pennsylvania by focusing on criminal organizations that bring it into the state and have made it cheap.He wants to form a "transnational organized crime unit" for a "full court press" to "crush" criminal enterprises that not only bring in heroin from other countries, but also engage in weapons trafficking, cyber crime and human trafficking. This specialized team would work closely with federal investigators.
Second, An ounce of prevention ...
Morganelli wants to step up preventive measures Every police department in the state would be supplied and trained with naloxone kits, which are used to treat heroin overdoses. He would overhaul a prescription drug monitoring program to make it easier to identify prescription drug abuse and tackle problems "before they get out of hand." He would expand the use of treatment courts and step up education efforts, particularly at schools.
Third, Support Your Local Sheriff
|Sarah McCann shares story|
Morganelli noted that as bad as heroin abuse is in the Lehigh Valley or in urban centers like Philadelphia, it's even worse in rural counties, where "county prisons have become detox units" and criminal justice resources are understaffed. Local sheriffs could fill that gap, he maintains.
At one of his town halls, McNeill provided an example of rural heroin abuse. Sarah McCann, age 24, is a farmer's daughter. And a heroin addict. She was shaking as she waited her turn to speak in Coplay At her young age, she's already lost a baby she was carrying. Her addicted boyfriend overdosed and died.
McNeill Forming Heroin Caucus, Wants Halfway Houses
Morganelli lauded McNeill for his efforts. For his part, the former trades union agent said he knew nothing about the subject until a few months ago. "What woke me up was when I heard from two parents who had just buried their children the day before," he said. "It blew my mind."
McNeill stated that Morganelli in Northampton County and Martin in Lehigh County have promised to help him in any way they can. Though he's running for re-election against Republican Dave Molony, he denied his interest is motivated by politics. "I have one Republican (Jim Martin) and one Democrat (John Morganelli) backing me, so I feel very good about that."
In Harrisburg, McNeill is setting up a bipartisan heroin caucus, and hopes to have 100 state legislators join him. He claimed the heroin epidemic "has to be stopped," and called it "totally out of control,." noting that there were over 3,000 heroin overdoes deaths last year in Pennsylvania. .
"These kids on heroin are not criminals," he said. "This has become a sickness." He'd like to open up halfway houses specialized to deal with heroin and other opioids.
|Dan McNeill clowns around with Tim Munsch|
As McNeill made his way out of the courthouse, he stopped to meet some members of Northampton County's Drug Court.
Tim Munsch, Director of Lehigh Valley Drug and Alcohol Intake,said that Lehigh Valley and St.Luke's Hospital should be more involved, and McNeill told him he'd like to use part of the vacant Allentown State Hospital to establish treatment for heroin and opioid addiction.
If You Need Help, There's Hope
Northampton County's Drug and Alcohol Division is sponsoring a presentation about the growing heroin and opioid epidemic. It will be hosted by HOPE (Heroin and Opioid Prevention Education) on Thursday, April 28, at 6:30 pm, at Bethlehem's Town Hall (10 E Church St, Bethlehem)
If you have a teenage child suffering from addiction or alcoholism, a parent support group meets every Thursday, 7 pm, at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, 3231 Tilghman St, Allentown, PA 18104. For more information, contact Donna Jacobsen at DonnaJacobsen657@gmail.com