Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
To law enforcement, and former addicts, "epidemic" isn't too strong a word.
After the first of a series of hearings on heroin use and overdose in the commonwealth, it's the word that came to mind for Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Westmoreland), who said people in his district know the problem firsthand.
"We started hearing in my county, my home county, Westmoreland, about drug overdoses," Krieger said. "You look in the newspaper and see 18-year-olds passing away, you have a suspicion. And we started hearing about heroin. Now, in our county, we're going to have a record year for heroin deaths."
State House lawmakers have embarked on a series of hearings to understand the problem, the first session was last week in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The state attorney general's office says Pennsylvania has an average of 40,000 heroin users - the third highest number of users, behind California and Illinois.
David Ellis, regional director of the attorney general's Bureau of Narcotics Investigations, told lawmakers last week that "heroin has an unprecedented grip on the commonwealth and the trend is worrisome." He said the office is trying to address the problem comprehensively, focusing on "criminal organizations and complex conspiracies."
The state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs also attributes the escalation of heroin use to prescription opioid abuse. "Individuals addicted to prescription opioids are transitioning to heroin use," said the agency's secretary, Gary Tennis.
Tennis said potential remedies include expanding the state's prescription drug monitoring database. Such a proposal is before the House now and has the support of the Corbett administration. But the effort is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and a recent change to the bill has prompted an outcry among doctors who say it could infringe on patient privacy.
The state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs suggests curbing opioid use will likely cause a spike in heroin use, so additional funding for detox programs is needed.
Two more hearings on heroin use are planned for the mid-state and the eastern part of the state.
"There may be legislative things we can do and there probably are," said Krieger. "But it, by itself, it won't solve the problem. It's going to be all parts of our society working because there are aspects of this that cover anything from family problems to education problems. It's that broad."
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