COAL TOWNSHIP - Drug addiction was likened to cancer earlier this week by state Rep. Kurt Masser is his reflection that everyone knows someone affected by the disease.

He hopes such prevalence will be enough to draw a significant crowd for the latest drug and alcohol awareness expo, set for 6 p.m. today at the Shamokin Area Middle/High School auditorium. Doors open at 5 p.m.

A large turnout to the Take Back Our Community event would be a step in the right direction, but substantial involvement from community members as a whole is necessary if a positive impact is to be realized in the fight against drug addiction, according to Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini.

Masser, Rosini and others met for a press conference Monday at the middle/high school to promote today's event. It will be the third such expo hosted by Masser since March; the others were held at Southern Columbia Area and Danville Area schools. He plans to host another at Mount Carmel Area in the fall.

"I think heroin has never been cheaper and never been at its highest purity levels," said Mount Carmel Police Chief Todd Owens, a longtime member of the Northumberland-Montour Drug Task Force.

A single dose of 0.1 grams of heroin costs between $10 and $20 now, down from $30 a decade ago, Owens said. It's cheaper than pills, which remain a popular alternative.

Potency can be deadly when heroin is mixed with prescription fentanyl, and that mixture is showing up locally.

Dubbed "Theraflu" among other street names, the mixture was blamed for 22 deaths in six Pennsylvania counties in January. Fifteen people died from overdosing on the mixture in one week in Allegheny County. At least 50 people died from the mixture in Pennsylvania in 2013.

Northumberland County that Coroner James Kelley said Monday he is aware of five drug overdose deaths so far this year involving heroin or a mixture of heroin and other drugs, including fentanyl. Three more cases are pending toxicity testing results and could raise that figure to eight slightly less than five months. He said two or three drug overdose deaths per year was considered abnormal a decade ago.

"I don't even think we've reached the peak of it yet," Kelley said.

Treatment expensive

Referrals for treatment of chemical dependency has never been higher since Glenda Bonetti became the head of Northumberland County Drug and Alcohol three years ago.

There have been 800 such referrals since July, and more than 82 percent of those are for abuse of heroin and prescription pills. Six in 10 of the referrals are sent to inpatient rehab, for which she has a budget of about $200,000. It's costly to pay for such treatment: between $3,500 and $7,000 per patient for a 28-day stay. Not everyone makes it for 28 days, though.

The county agency deals with residents who are uninsured or under-insured, only a fraction of those seeking treatment. She said a methadone clinic that opened in Watsontown near interstates 80 and 180 is "thriving," drawing many people from out of area.

Supply and demand

Out of the area is where many people believe drugs are coming from. Owens said the source city for heroin has shifted from Reading to Williamsport, and locals make trips several times daily to bring the drug back to Northumberland County.

Rosini said it's not only out-of-area dealers at the root of the problem. There would be no market locally if there wasn't demand, and he said that's where focus must be placed.

The county drug and alcohol agency has programs in local schools, including in elementary schools. However, the officials agreed more has to be done at a younger age. Kelley pointed to SADD and MADD, which began as drinking and driving initiatives. It took years to hit home, he said. That same commitment must be made for drugs.

When he left the police academy 20 years ago, Owens believed the answer to a drug problem was jail and he advocated building as many jails as necessary. His mind-set has changed, and he now believes in the virtues of counseling and treatment, including treatment courts as an alternative to jail time. It's cheaper to spend money on the prevention of drug abuse than it is to lock up offenders, he said.

Police chiefs William Carpenter and Darwin Tobias III, of Coal Township and Shamokin respectively, nodded their heads in agreement when Rosini said police officers don't want to lock everyone up for drugs.

Everyone agreed with Bonetti's assertion that parents must take a more active role in prevention education.

Clean kids the minority

Chris Venna, Shamokin Area Middle/High School principal, said some parents lash out at school officials when they attempt to address a drug or alcohol issue with their children, especially in middle school. Sometimes, those same parents are calling the school for help when the kids reach high school he said.

In his 15 years in education, Venna said he's come to learn that drug abuse can impact anyone from any background, wealthy or poor, athletes, band members, kids in the chess club.

He stressed that rather than simply telling kids to "say no," emphasis must be placed on improving self-esteem and coping mechanisms. It's difficult to stay clean now, he said. Kids who are completely clean are now a minority, Venna said, and peer pressure can be daunting.

Owens pointed to a study by a criminal justice class at the local campus of Luzerne County Community College that found 80 percent of the teens they polled experimented with drugs or alcohol.