Fatal heroin overdoses, families ripped apart, decaying communities and a rising financial toll for taxpayers – these are among the devastating consequences of a drug epidemic that has swept across northern Pennsylvania and shown its ugly face in Potter County. Three public officials in the forefront of trying to stem the tide reported on their progress and offered some advice to families and community members during a public presentation at the Oswayo Valley Memorial Library in Shinglehouse. Speakers were Potter County District Attorney Andy Watson, Shinglehouse Borough Police Chief Brad Buchholz and Potter County Drug and Alcohol Programs Administrator Colleen Wilber.
Watson explained that the law enforcement community has seen a meteoric rise in serious drug cases since 2010. He has been a central figure in the establishment and operation of a regional law enforcement strike force that has intercepted some drug trafficking through undercover officers and confidential informants. Buchholz has also played a role on the strike force, which is part of a statewide initiative controlled by the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General. They showed samples of heroin packets that are commonly available in Potter County, inexpensive and often adulterated or “cut” with other substances.
The D.A. cited more than 100 arrests since the strike force began its work, some of which involved major dealers linked to distribution networks centered in Williamsport and other more populated areas. Watson encouraged citizens to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior that could be related to drug trafficking. He also discussed a new initiative that encourages those who are addicted to illicit substances to contact law enforcement officials for referral to treatment options as an alternative to criminal prosecution. Buchholz suggested that parents monitor their children’s internet or mobile device use, since those electronic tools are used for 90 percent or more of drug transactions.
Wilber’s spoke of services available through the county. Her agency assesses drug and alcohol offenders for addiction and connects them with treatment options. Services are available to all county residents – not just those involved the criminal justice system. She and Watson serve on a team that administers two “treatment courts” that provide alternatives to traditional criminal justice disposition in some cases.
Potter County has received national and state accolades for some of its early forays into innovative programs that are geared toward reducing jail populations and more effectively addressing issues and circumstances that can lead an individual to criminal activity. Senior Judge John Leete presides over the DUI and Drug Treatment Courts, while President Judge Stephen Minor has been a driving force behind their establishment. Potter County Commissioners Doug Morley, Paul Heimel and Susan Kefover have also been supportive, providing increased staffing in the county’s Probation Department and establishment of a Women’s Residential Recovery Center in Harrison Valley.