LOWER SAUCON, Pa. – Zachary Lysek, the coroner of Northampton County, shared a conversation he had with a heroin user during a forum called “The Opioid Crisis and More” held Wednesday Night at the Lower Saucon Township Council Chambers.
What’s heroin really like?
“Like being kissed by God,” the addict told Lysek.
Or, maybe, the devil.
“We have to stop people from using drugs,” John Morganelli, the district attorney of Northampton County, said. Morganelli was another panel member for the event.
“It ruins lives,” Morganelli said. “It is an addiction. I believe it is.”
“Drug addiction is a symptom of a bigger problem,” Lysek said. “… We are dealing with some mental health issues.”
Morganelli said illegal drug use is a massive business in the United States. There is an unrelenting demand from U.S. citizens for illegal drugs and an equally unrelenting supply by those who make fortunes from it.
“Dealers typically don’t use drugs,” Morganelli said. “They make a lot of money selling this poison on the streets.”
Most of the “poison” comes from one country that borders the United States according to Morganelli.
“It’s an undisputed fact, that most drugs that come into the United States come from Mexico,” Morganelli said.
Morganelli said the drugs are smuggled across the southern border into the United States primarily through Texas and New Mexico. Eventually the drugs find their way to large cities and small towns all over America. Geographic regions – sometimes cities themselves – have their favorite drugs of choice, he said.
Drug of Choice
Joseph Lupackino, the assistant district attorney of Northampton County, said rock-hard crack cocaine is prevalent in Easton. In the borough of Northampton and Lehigh Township it’s the shiny, bluish-white rocks known as methamphetamine. In the city of Bethlehem, it’s the synthetic opioid painkiller known as fentanyl, he said.
Fentanyl, Lysek noted, is a good drug – if you are a zoologist.
“It was designed in China, to sedate elephants and rhinoceros,” Lysek said.
Fentanyl is stronger than heroin, the coroner said. A lot stronger. Anywhere between 80 to 200 times more powerful than “H.”
“Two milligrams of Fentanyl will kill you,” he said.
Lysek told the audience about what he does for a living, which sometimes includes determining the cause of death of drug overdoses. He shared toxicology reports on various individuals who sometimes are using so many drugs it takes months to ascertain just exactly how much of what killed them.
“Testing is extremely time consuming,” he said.
The coroner added that many people who take illegal drugs don’t even know exactly what they are taking. That’s because more drug pushers are lacing the drugs with more powerful substances.
“We don’t know the effect of synthetic marijuana,” Lysek noted.
What Lysek does know are statistics. In 2017, there were 109 opiate deaths in Northampton County. That number dropped last year to 73, although it is not complete as some cases and investigations are outstanding. While the number will rise, it should be lower than the year previous.
Officials say the lower number can be attributed, in part, to efforts by various government, law enforcement and non-profit agencies to slow down the epidemic.
But it is an epidemic, nevertheless. A total of 558 people went to an emergency room during 2018 because they had a drug overdose in Northampton County. Many of those are from opioids.
Another panel member, Linda Johnson, founder of the nonprofit Voices for Change, relayed the story of her son who was an addict for seven years. Her organization battles against the stigma associated with addiction and for more affordable and effective treatment for those suffering from drug addiction.
“Addiction is a brain disease,” she said.
Rhonda Miller is the founder of Speak Up for Ben. The non-profit seeks to raise awareness of the dangers of opioid use. It was named in honor of her son who died from drug addiction. Miller told the audience that “addiction can happen to anyone.”
Both women praised the opening this fall of the Kolbe Academy, the Lehigh Valley’s first faith-based recovery high school. The Allentown Diocese will open the school that is dedicated to helping students who have undergone addiction treatment. Kolbe Academy is named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, the patron saint of those with addiction.