The recent explosion in heroin addiction in Central Pennsylvania has grabbed headlines and has everybody talking. Here in Centre County, there had been a small, interconnected group of heroin addicts since at least the late 1990s, with membership fluctuating, as older addicts either died, went to prison, or managed to get clean, only to be replaced by neophyte junkies. A large percentage of these addicts had underlying mental health issues and/or came from dysfunctional family situations. Many of them got into heroin because they felt they had no future, or because their mental illnesses clouded their judgment. In 2014, this is no longer the profile of the typical Centre County heroin addict, and sadly, the addicts no longer form a small, insular community. They are everywhere, and they now come from all walks of life.
Within the past few years, those of us in the criminal justice system started seeing a disturbing trend, as more and more young people from healthy, intact, nuclear families were being charged with heroin-related offenses. We also started to see Penn State students involved with heroin, which had previously been about as rare as a Lady Lion's loss in volleyball. So the obvious question is what happened? It is easy to see why the "traditional" Centre Region heroin addicts got involved with the drug, but why would people with so much to lose decide to flush their lives down the toilet?
The simple answer is the wide use and abuse of prescription narcotic pills. With so many parents and grandparents prescribed pain pills, it is just as easy for curious teens to swipe pills as it was for earlier generations to raid the liquor cabinet. Pharmacologically, prescription opiates like oxycodone have the same effects as heroin, and just like heroin, they can lead to opiate dependency. From there, the economic theory of the "rational consumer" takes over. It is much cheaper to buy heroin than prescription pills on the black market. If you have become addicted to pain pills, the logical next step is to start snorting H. From there, the next step in mainlining, in order to get even more bang for the buck.
Many of these new, young addicts are demographically similar to my friends and me when we were teenagers. As disheartening as it is to be a middle-aged man in a college town at times, I am glad I was born when I was. Yet it is not just young people who slip into heroin use. There are even adults who became addicted to pain meds, through no fault of their own following an injury, who ultimately switch to heroin, when no doctors will refill their opiate prescriptions, due to red flags of addiction.
If there is any silver lining to the new face of heroin addiction, it is that the new addicts are much more amenable to treatment than the down-and-out, traditional junkies. The new crop of Central Pennsylvania addicts are dysfunctional because they are addicts, while the traditional junkies became addicts because they are dysfunctional. The cause and effect are reversed, and as someone who spent three years as a member of a Drug Treatment Court team, I can tell you that the etiology of addiction matters greatly when it comes to treatment outcomes.
A person who has been a screw-up since kindergarten is not going to suddenly become a productive citizen simply because he got clean at age 25. He was a screw-up when sugar and caffeine were his only mind-altering substances; he was a screw-up while on hard drugs, and after he gets sober, he will still have difficulty holding down a job or completing a degree. By contrast, people who were high-functioning, productive citizens can return to their old ways once they have conquered their addictions. Treatment works for these people, and that is why it is important for the criminal justice system to emphasize treatment over punishment.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He represents people charged with heroin-related offenses. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Drug-Possession.shtml