On Tuesday, February 15, 2017, the atmosphere in the room at Lower Bucks Addiction Task Force’s first community forum was serious yet hopeful. Hosted by Cairn University, the event educated community members about initiatives combating addiction in Lower Bucks and outlined steps for community involvement. Over 200 Bucks County residents, addicts in recovery, provider agencies, and representatives from various area nonprofits and churches participated in the event. Dr. Todd Williams, president of Cairn, affirmed the University’s desire “to be a part of the solution to the systemic issues related to addictions in Lower Bucks County.”
The panel included Matt Weintraub, Bucks County district attorney, and Diane Rosati, executive director of the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission. Also featured on the panel was State Representative Gene DiGirolamo, along with representatives of local law enforcement, emergency medical services, and local service provider agencies ranging from counseling centers to rehabilitation facilities and recovery houses. The Honorable Rea Boylan of the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas moderated the event. Panelists shared about successes and growing challenges facing those seeking to combat the growing epidemic of substance abuse in Bucks County and fielded questions from the audience. One recent success highlighted that naloxone (an opioid antidote also known as Narcan) is now carried not only by Lower Bucks law enforcement, but also by local schools. The Drug and Alcohol Commission has also worked hard to make Narcan available to community members. Rosati reports that of the 59 community members who requested kits to date, four have reported that the use of those kits saved the life of a loved one.
Fred Harran, Bensalem director of public safety, described a three-pronged approach to fighting addiction in Bucks County: law enforcement, rehabilitation, and education. Current initiatives focus on addressing common gateways to substance abuse and creating early intervention pathways for people to get loved ones the help they need. Panelists acknowledged accessibility and affordability of opiates and heroin as contributing to the addictions crisis, but their greater concern centered on prescription drugs as the primary gateway to substance abuse for both teens and adults. The Bucks Country Drug and Alcohol Commission and local police departments have set up 33 drug take-back boxes throughout the community; last year, these organizations collected and disposed of over 80,000 pounds of old and expired prescription drugs. Other proposed legislation attempts to restrict the unnecessary or excessive prescription of drugs by medical professionals.
Progress in creating early intervention pathways includes recent state legislation: Act 53, which gives parents additional options to intervene and get their kids necessary treatment for substance abuse without the child’s consent. Another recent piece of legislation, Act 139, can protect those present at an overdose occurrence from prosecution for possession of illegal substances, encouraging more people to report overdose cases.
The panelists agreed unanimously that the most critical need in addition to these initiatives and legislation is for community members to change the stigma surrounding addiction and empower people to seek help. The Bucks County community needs to acknowledge that addiction is a disease, break the stigma of shame surrounding addiction, and encourage addicts in recovery to share their stories and spread hope that people do recover.
Community members in attendance were given the opportunity to network with local provider agencies before and after the event, leaving the event with a challenge to consider their role in moving forward this community-wide effort. John, a community member and addict in recovery who had served two tours in Afghanistan, walked away feeling surprised and hopeful. “[In this group, I felt] accepted despite my history of substance abuse and hopeful for those still running the streets.” Dr. Lloyd Gestoso, dean of the School of Social Work at Cairn and member of the Lower Bucks Addiction Task Force, expressed the task force’s intention to build on the momentum of this first community forum and continue its work to champion initiatives combating addiction in Lower Bucks County.