CATAWISSA R.R. - State Rep. Kurt Masser knows an awareness expo will not solve today's drug and alcohol abuse problems. But that's not what's it all about, he said.

"If we can reach out to one parent or one or two kids that starts an anti-drug dialogue between them, it will be a huge success," Masser said Monday.

Addressing the "next generation" is the intent while Masser teams up with state Rep. David Millard (R-109) and the Columbia County commissioners for a drug and alcohol awareness expo at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Southern Columbia Area High School. The event, promoted with a cry of "Take Back Our Community!" is designed to bring the community together for a discussion on the dangers of drug and alcohol and how to prevent abuse.

Vendors will include counselors, representatives from area treatment centers and local and state law enforcement agencies and government entities. Also, guest speakers will discuss signs to look for, what can be done in cases where a loved one or friend knows of a problem, handling the loss of a loved one to addiction and how the community can do more.

"Awareness is the key to stopping the epidemic," Masser said at a press event to promote the expo Monday at G.C. Hartman Elementary School. "We need to be more aware in our community of the toll addiction takes on a family."

Hits home for Masser, Appel

It's an issue that hits close to home for the state representative. Masser lost his niece, Erika Smith, of Elysburg, to a heroin overdose in November; she was 34. Smith was the stepdaughter of Ralpho Township Police Chief Stuart Appel, who joined Masser and a panel of county and law enforcement officials Monday.

"The problem is law enforcement officials are seen as the last resort," Appel said. "We don't always have to arrest little Tommy," he said, speaking to parents or other family or friends who might not want to "turn in" a loved one. "If anyone suspects something, come and talk to us, and we can offer our expertise."

Columbia County Commissioner Rich Ridgway noted drug addiction causes people to commit other crimes to feed their habits.

"When I left the office Friday, the county prison population was 217 inmates. When I came in (Monday), the number was up to 247 inmates, and I bet a number of them were booked on drug-related charges."

"It's not just possession charges anymore," added Locust Township Police Chief Allen Breach. "We are seeing an uptake in the number of household crimes and burglaries. People will steal scrap metal, even the copper out of abandoned homes, to get money to feed their habits."

"It's a demon that will not go away," said Columbia County Commissioner Chris Young.

'Aftercare' needed

Glenda Bonetti, director of the Northumberland County Drug and Alcohol Commission, said treatment programs are available in most counties, but solving the problem is dependent on the addict wanting to get help.

"Many times, an addict will enter the program to detox from the drugs, but they never follow through with aftercare, which is key to being off drugs for good," Bonetti said. "I've had one client that has gone through 17 different treatments and is still not clean."

While the drugs of choice today include heroin, prescription medication abuse continues to be an issue, too.

"That's where we need to fight, come up with a statewide registry for the doctors and the people who are doctor shopping to see who is being abusive," Masser said, alluding to suggested registries for prescription opiates. "Many people are arguing about losing their rights of privacy. I would give up my rights if it means keeping an individuals off of drugs."

Shamokin later

Wednesday's expo will also feature people sharing their stories of loss and stories of hope "so people can see how drugs affect everyone," Masser said.

Masser is working on similar events for Danville and Shamokin later this year.

"This is our first step in taking back our communities from drugs," he said. "If we can educate the next generation on how harmful these substances are, we can make a difference."