By: Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland)

Limiting opioid prescriptions, mandatory treatment, plus stiff penalties for drug pushers who possess illegal guns – these are the three key weapons in the fight against opioid and heroin abuse.   

Those three elements form the bulwark of a legislative package I’ve offered called the “Prevention Recovery and Enforcement Act.”

Opioid and heroin addiction has impacted every community.  Families throughout Pennsylvania have been torn apart and communities devastated by heroin abuse.  The statistics are startling: Ten Pennsylvanians die each day from opioids; Pennsylvania has the highest number of drug overdoses by 12 to 25-year-old men and the eighth highest among all individuals; 1,341 overdoses have been reversed by police.  I could go on. 

To deal with this intractable problem, tough solutions are necessary.  My Prevention Recovery Enforcement Act plan is simple, straightforward (Senate Bills 710-712) and is the kind of addiction game-changer Pennsylvania needs.

First, we must prevent addiction, and that can be effectively done by limiting access to opioids.  My plan would limit the amount that may be prescribed to 100 morphine milligram equivalents (i.e. opioids) per day.  The plan is in line with Centers for Disease Control and State Board of Medicine recommendations.  According to the guidelines, doses above 100 milligrams a day pose a significant risk of harm and are not legitimately associated with pain control.  

Second, while mandatory or involuntary treatment is a significant step, it is a necessary one given the problem.  We know that short-term treatment often fails to reduce recidivism.  During testimony at a Senate Policy hearing last year, many from the medical community lamented that it often takes a minimum of nine months of treatment for most addicts to have any hope of recovering. Long-term commitment in a facility with a dedicated treatment protocol is imperative if we are serious about curtailing heroin dependency. 

That’s why I’ve proposed that a person charged with a non-violent criminal act who is treated by first responders for drug addiction be committed to a treatment facility — if a court agrees that they are addicts.  The person charged, his or her attorney or the district attorney can initiate the mandatory treatment process. The initial treatment period would be 12-months.  If the person successfully completes the treatment regimen, the underlying criminal charges could be dismissed. 

Third, we need to stiffen penalties against heroin pushers who are not addicts but who possess illegal guns while dealing drugs.  As McKeesport’s former mayor, and, in my long-experience working with law enforcement, I’m certain tough penalties for armed drug dealers would deter the proliferation of drugs on the street. 

Why this approach?  While excellent work has been done by the Gov. Tom Wolf, Sen. Gene Yaw and others on battling opioids, I think we can add other tools to the law enforcement/ health care toolbox that would help tackle the problem.

The pieces of my Prevention Recovery Enforcement Act take on the problem at its roots by preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place; treating the affliction via mandatory treatment; and removing the source of the problem from the streets. 

While the program I’ve outline comes with additional costs, many of these expenses can be handled by a reduction in crime associated with reducing drug dependency, using Medicaid to cover treatment for those eligible and deploying drug seizure funds to help pay for treatment. 

While state and federal resources can be stretched to help handle costs, it may not be enough.  Stakeholders in the treatment community, insurance companies, health care facilities and others have a role to play in helping close the funding circle. 

The responsibility for dealing with the heroin crisis belongs to each party in the law enforcement and the treatment chain.  And, it is only by working in concert with addicts, their families and loved ones that will we will save more lives, protect communities from this scourge and build stronger futures. 

We have come a long way in trying to address the opioid/heroin addiction problem.   Yet, more can be done.  This comprehensive approach outlined in my Prevention Recovery Enforcement Act is a way forward that will pay significant dividends.