Lancaster County Has an Another Epidemic – An Opioid Epidemic – and No One is Talking About It | News Analysis
News comes today that Pennsylvania law enforcement busted three major drug trafficking rings operating in the Keystone State, leading to the arrest of dozens of people and seizure of fentanyl, nearly half a million dollars in cash and firearms.
According to police, officers arrested 35 individuals allegedly tied to the illegal drug organizations.
Following the execution of 30 search warrants on Wednesday and Thursday, agents recovered $480,000 in cash and 20 firearms, including three AR-15 assault rifles, a mini AK47 and 13 handguns.
Law enforcement also seized $97,500 worth of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid more powerful than heroin; $87,000 worth of Xylazine, a horse tranquilizer; and $130,000 worth of crack cocaine, Shapiro said.
The groups were allegedly on track to sell $8 million worth of drugs annually.
The single trafficking ring then allegedly broke into three with ties to all southeastern Pennsylvania counties, Virginia and Maryland, Shapiro said.
This is welcome news, but it’s still just a dent in the massive opioid epidemic gripping Pennsylvania and particularly Lancaster County.
I spent much of 2019 traveling through the South, through Appalachia and through the Rust Belt researching the opioid crisis – a largely silent crisis because of who it most affects.
It mostly affects the proverbial “forgotten man” – working class and white males, a demographic the media seems to resent and politicians of all stripes can’t even name.
Lancaster County has not been spared this plague of opioid overdoses, and the impact tracks along with what I saw in my travels through small town America – from Florida up through Kentucky and West Virginia, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio and Michigan.
It goes grimly hand in hand with the epidemic of the “deaths of despair” – the phenomena where the life expectancy of white males has actually declined in the past few years because of suicide, addiction and alcoholism concurrent with loss of wages, jobs and esteem in American life.
Between 2015 and 2019, there were 566 opioid overdose deaths in Lancaster County alone.
Of those 71% were male, and 81% were white.
Asked about this, Melinda Zipp, director of the Lancaster, Harrisburg, York Harm Reduction Projects, said that there are a number of reasons.
“Opioids tend to make up a higher percentage of whites drug of choice compared to other races,” she said.
And she’s not wrong, entirely.
But “drug of choice” seems to imply simple recreational use and abuse. However, with opioids, unlike marijuana and cocaine, the primary route of introduction for users is legal prescriptions, not simple recreational thrill-seeking.
That is to say, their first taste came from a person they trusted most – their doctor.
Some might sneer at “pill poppers” for a moral failing, but the number one way Americans are introduced to prescription opioids is when they get them for acute pain for minor or major surgeries. The second most common way is wisdom tooth removal. The average age of the recipients of opioids for wisdom tooth removal? About 17.
And while politicians have paid some lip service to the opioid epidemic in recent years, it hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
Think that’s an exaggeration? According to the latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses involving opioids killed more than 47,000 Americans in 2017. More than a third of those deaths involved legal, prescription opioids.
The Vietnam War lasted 19 years and 58,000 Americans died. So in 2017, almost as many Americans died of opioid overdoses as died in 20 years of war in Southeast Asia. And let’s make no mistake – the bulk of these deaths come from prescription drugs and synthetic opioids. Drugs like fentanyl, opioid painkillers such as Oxycotin and Percocet, and then after all that heroin comes into play.
This crisis – this epidemic – shows no signs of slowing. Death by overdose is now the leading cause of mortality for Americans under the age of 50, according to the CDC.
One reason this opioid plague gets neither the attention nor solutions it needs is because of who the primary victims are – working class, white males.
Ironically, Zipp hits on this point in a roundabout way when she admits it’s taboo to talk about how bad the opioid epidemic is.
“Although [white males being the primary victim of the opioid crisis] has been touched on at various meetings when discussing data, I do not believe with the heightened political climate it is something that many want to focus on currently; as many groups already feel the only reason the opioid epidemic has received so much attention and resources is because it is affecting white constituents and families at a higher rate than other communities of color, as compared to the crack epidemic in the 80s and early 90s that resulted in increased crime and violence in inner city neighborhoods as well as tough on crime policies that were seen as discriminatory against minorities, mostly blacks, who were more likely to use crack.”
The greatest irony of this whole grim tragedy that has befallen white, working class America is that it didn’t have to happen at all.
Last year I spoke to Dr. Robert Valuck, professor at the University of Colorado-Denver’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciene. He said the greatest, grimmest irony of all is that it shouldn’t have happened.
For the acute pain most people experience after surgeries – both minor or major – 93 percent of people take 15 tablets or fewer of their entire prescription. For those getting wisdom tooth surgery, they are typically prescribed 30 and use just four. For those who suffer soft tissue injuries, they are on average given between 30 and 60 tablets, and end up using just 10-12.
“So the thing is it should be doctors giving 10 tablets for soft tissue injuries, or 6 for a wisdom tooth extraction or 15 for surgery, and then call me if you need more, but doctors have been socialized into ‘don’t let people be in pain, don’t leave them in pain trying to contact you over the weekend, don’t let that happen,’” Valuck said. “So you give them plenty more than they need. That’s how doctors were socialized, trained and taught and marketed to.”
“Everyone thinks pain equals opioid – patients and doctors alike,” he said. “That’s wonderful for pharmaceutical manufacturers but not for anyone else.”
Since we’re all finally talking about world pandemics, how about we spare some time for the epidemic right here in our own back yard?