The rampant spread of fentanyl-laced drugs and the ease of purchasing non-prescription drugs make for a dangerous combination.
According to the state Attorney General, the opioid and heroin epidemic is the No. 1 public health and public safety challenge facing Pennsylvania.
“Our district attorney and our county executive were really adamant in going after the pharmaceutical companies that were manufacturing the opioids,” said Kathleen Jiorle, Northampton County drug and alcohol administrator.
Ellen DiDomenico, deputy director of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said recent lawsuits against opioid manufacturers have afforded counties across the state, including Northampton County, millions of dollars to spend on opioid and fentanyl awareness, addiction recovery efforts and drug safety, among other initiatives.
DiDomenico said the most recent opioid settlement, finalized in 2022, is referred to as the Big Four.
The settlement brought an end to thousands of civil lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson and distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.
DiDomenico said the lawsuits resulted in a $26 billion settlement to areas across the country, from which Pennsylvania will receive over $1 billion over the next 18 years.
DiDomenico said there is a great deal of flexibility with this money.
“It really does run the gamut of anything from prevention, education, intervention, treatment, recovery support services (and) there’s even some ability to look at law enforcement-related efforts,” DiDomenico said.
She said 70% of the money Pennsylvania will receive will be dispersed among county governments based on a combination of metrics similar to those used to establish the settlement on a national level. This includes the number of overdose deaths, hospitalizations, naloxone administrations and opioid shipments to those counties.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the increasing number of overdoses, deaths and hospitalizations are attributed to the presence of fentanyl in street drugs, which kills more than 150 people every day.
DiDomenico said Pennsylvania’s numbers are even higher than national ones, and nearly 80% of the state’s overdose deaths involve fentanyl.
She said individuals are accidentally overdosing on fentanyl after buying what they think is pure marijuana, cocaine, heroin or pills that look nearly identical to prescription medications.
“If you’re buying a substance on the street, it’s safe to assume fentanyl is involved,” DiDomenico said.
Jiorle said this is why Northampton County launched its Fake is Real campaign.
The campaign is an initiative of the Northampton County Drug and Alcohol division that is funded through opioid settlement funds the county has already received.
Rhonda Miller, grief educator and executive director of Speak Up for Ben Inc. and the Oasis Community Center, is part of a committee that gave input during the development of the campaign because she said the fentanyl crisis is growing.
“The drug world today of street drugs is vastly different than it was five years ago and before because fentanyl is toxic, it’s poisonous, it’s fatal, and it’s in all the street drugs,” Miller said.
Miller lost her son to an accidental overdose in 2016, seven years after his opioid addiction began. She said her son first started using after being prescribed vicodin after a wisdom tooth surgery. He began buying heroin off the streets, until one day, what he thought was heroin was pure fentanyl.
The drug took his life.
Thrown into unimaginable grief, Miller said she knew she had to do something to help others, so she and her husband founded the non-profit Speak Up for Ben Inc. to educate the community under the motto, “Break the silence, end the stigma, never forget.”
She said she not only wanted to help individuals struggling with addiction, but also wanted to support their loved ones, as she felt the stigma that surrounds addiction limited the people she could turn to when her son was struggling with his addiction.
“When my son was in active addiction, there weren’t many people that I openly talked to about this simply because they didn’t understand,” Miller said. “Families carry a lot of shame and blame when their loved ones have addiction issues. As a result of that, they are terrified to even walk into the door of any facility for help for themselves.”
Miller joined Northampton County’s Drug and Alcohol Division to create the Oasis Community Center, which is the first and only recovery center in Pennsylvania that is devoted to supporting families and friends of people with addictions.
She said when her son was struggling with addiction, her own health plummeted because she directed all of her focus to saving his life. She wanted to propose a center that takes a “holistic” and “family-centered” approach.
Jiorle finds addiction is also a “family disease.”
“We’re trying to have the focus not be so much on the person really using the substance because it does affect everybody in the family,” Jiorle said.
In terms of the user, Joirle said no one wants to be the person who has the problem, and it takes a tremendous amount of courage for anyone to reach out.
Drug addiction and alcohol dependency is increasingly common, specifically among college-aged individuals. According to American Addiction Centers, “one study found that nearly half of participating college students met the criteria for at least one substance use disorder.”
DiDomenico said substance use happens more frequently than she wishes on college campuses, so it is important to have resources for students accessible, like on-campus Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and substance-free activities.
She said she encourages campuses and other educational settings to push these anti-drug messages out.
Miller said anyone entertaining the idea of using drugs should be aware that fentanyl is in everything now, and it is deadly.
She urges people to carry narcan and seek resources, such as by calling 1-800-662-HELP to find a treatment provider or funding for addiction treatment.
“People want to help,” Miller said. “Don’t fear being punished. Don’t fear being judged because your life is worth it.”