About 80 people attended a discussion in Bensalem Tuesday night on what many believe to be the biggest public health crisis facing Bucks County.
Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, the township police department and Building a Better Bensalem Together met with members of the community to discuss current drug trends and the impact substance abuse has locally.
The two-hour discussion touched on issues of drug enforcement, prevention, rehabilitation and what parents and community members can do to help.
“There has to be solutions,” DiGirolamo said at the start of the meeting. “I will give our police force all the tools that they need to make sure that we can put a dent into this in Bensalem … if we save one life at a time, we’re getting it done.”
Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran focused on issues of enforcement.
The township’s location is among major routes like I-95, Route 1 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s the first suburban town northeast of Philadelphia, a major hub for heroin, and the first access point to Philly from New York City along I-95.
Bensalem combats its location with traffic patrols, and ranks among the highest in Pennsylvania, even above state police, in taking drugs and assets off the street, according to Harran.
Bensalem is also home to over half of Bucks County’s hotel rooms and 38 apartment complexes.
“We’ve got a lot of transient population,” Harran said. “It brings a lot of problems.”
From 2003 to 2005 compared to 2015, there has been a 178 percent increase in overdoses, and 150 percent increase in fatal overdoses in Bensalem. In comparing the first six months of 2015 to the first six months of 2016, there was another 58 percent increase in overdoses.
But the overdoses aren’t where it ends.
“Eighty percent of our crime is drug-related,” Harran said. “People don’t break into your car, people don’t break into your house, people don’t steal from Walmart to pay their Comcast bill … they’re doing that to get their next high.”
Harran also broke down the cost of heroin and compared it to street prices for prescription medications that often lead there.
According to Bensalem Police, Xanax, Oxycodone, Percocet and Vicodin pills all average about $1 per milligram, and addicts typically use multiple 10, 15 or 30 milligram pills per day. Meanwhile, a bundle, or 14 bags, of heroin averages about $125 in Philadelphia, while an individual bag costs about $10.
Even if you equate a bag of heroin to one pill, heroin is significantly cheaper. Philadelphia has some of the purest heroin in the nation, which can lead people off pills and onto heroin.
The discussion highlighted some things local law enforcement and the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission are doing to help the problem.
Earlier this summer, Bensalem Police Department introduced a new program to aid people seeking recovery.
Bensalem Police Assisting In Recovery (BPAIR), launched in July, allows township residents struggling with substance abuse to come into the Bensalem Police Department and be paired with a “navigator” who will accompany them to a nearby treatment center, offering support and encouragement until the process begins.
If individuals have drugs or drug paraphernalia and turn it over, they will not be arrested or charged with a crime. Only 12 people have used it so far, Harran said.
Bensalem Police also send certified letters to doctors whose patients are found to be abusing or selling prescription medication. Often this comes about in traffic stops or arrests, when suspects have prescriptions that appear to be used much more frequently than prescribed.
Probably the largest help in preventing overdose deaths is the implementation of Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of an overdose. Since its introduction to county police departments about a year ago, there have been over 150 lives saved by Bucks law enforcement professionals using Narcan, and 48 in Bensalem alone.
Bensalem and Bucks County also participate in drug takeback efforts throughout the year. At any time, locals can drop off extra or expired prescription medication to the Bensalem Police Department. There is also a dedicated takeback event at the Giant supermarket, 2721 Street Road in Bensalem, on Oct. 22, where individuals can bring their medication for law enforcement to dispose of.
Diane Rosati, executive director of the Bucks Drug and Alcohol Commission, spoke about a few county resources to fight substance abuse.
One of them is Act 53, which gives parents whose minor children refuse treatment the option of involuntary commitment. Basically, parents and guardians can get their children a drug and alcohol assessment, and if warranted, the legal system can require them to enter treatment.
Bucks County has streamlined this process so it can be completed often with a same-day assessment and hearing at the Justice Center in Doylestown. To get started, parents are encouraged to contact the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission.
Rosati also spoke about how the county supplies Narcan kits to school districts, partnered with Bucks hospitals to have people stationed there to provide information on treatment, implemented programs for pregnant women and men in Bucks County Prison to cope with addiction, and continued to fund prevention, education and treatment.
“We have an overdose problem, we have an opiate problem, we have a heroin problem,” Rosati said. “It’s not just that. If we only pay attention to the medications or we only pay attention to the heroin, we’re really missing the boat. We have a substance abuse issue.”