Opinion: Each year, drug epidemic kills size of college campus in Pennsylvania

In 2014, nearly 2,500 Pennsylvanians died from a drug overdose — more than the number of students enrolled at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

“[Opioids are] stronger than [they have] been before… and it’s hitting a new population,” Rick Kastner of the Lancaster County Drug and Alcohol Commission explained. “And heroin is cheap — you can get a bag for $10 ... even kids can afford it. And like anything in this country, if the demand is there, the supply is gonna meet it.”

The supply was certainly available for 23-year-old Anthony Perez. A Lancaster County native, Anthony had dark eyes and hair, with a “million-dollar smile.” He grew up playing soccer on a team that his step dad coached, and he exhibited early talent on the soccer field. His mom, Stacy, remembers his skill, commenting that he probably would have fielded scholarship offers if he had stayed with the sport.

A drug that is prescribed by doctors and sold on the streets shouldn’t be killing off the size of a college campus every year in Pennsylvania or taking individuals like Anthony. We must act now to reverse this tragic epidemic.

— Rep. Joe Pitts

When he was 13 though, Anthony began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol. At the age of 15, his teacher called Stacy with the news that Anthony was falling asleep everyday in class. When Stacy searched his room, she found cocaine. Then it was smoking crack. Then it was mushrooms. And finally, heroin.

“I started mourning a lot longer for him before he died,” Stacy says. “I started to realize it’s more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if,’ especially when I found the heroin.” In the wee morning hours of March 1, 2014, Anthony came into Stacy’s bedroom to tell her goodnight. Later that morning when she woke up, she found Anthony dead in his room of a heroin overdose.

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Anthony is not the only one that has been affected.

Heroin use among young adults, ages 18-25, has more than doubled in the past decade; no income level, gender, or age group is exempt. In fact, the CDC reports that some of the greatest increases in usage occur in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin usage: women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes. Anthony was just a normal kid, growing up for most of his life with two parents, playing soccer. And he succumbed, like so many others that many thought never would.

There are two major parts of the opioid epidemic: the use of illegal opioids (like heroin in Anthony’s case) and the abuse of prescription painkillers. However, sometimes these two worlds overlap: heroin abuse may begin as prescription drug addiction and evolve into buying cheap heroin to get the next "fix." An effective strategy in the fight against opioid abuse must take into consideration all of these components; it must also maintain appropriate access to pain medication for those who truly need it.

Through numerous hearings that the Energy & Commerce Committee has held, it’s clear that we need to seriously examine our current strategy. That’s why I voted for two bills on Tuesday to examine the way we do this: one to evaluate states’ Good Samaritan laws, the laws that allow individuals to report an opioid overdose without fear of being charged with criminal activity, and another to evaluate the effectiveness of government grant programs that address opioid abuse.

A drug that is prescribed by doctors and sold on the streets shouldn’t be killing off the size of a college campus every year in Pennsylvania or taking individuals like Anthony. We must act now to reverse this tragic epidemic.