A new category of opioid drug dealers has emerged in Luzerne County: the elderly.
County Drug and Alcohol Director Steve Ross revealed the development during a presentation for county council about the opioid epidemic this week, saying later he was alerted by several people in the recovery field.
“Our seniors are in a very volatile state right now because what we’re learning is that there are a number of seniors out there who are selling their prescription painkillers to pay for their other medications and/or food,” Ross said in his report.
While the number varies by community, opioid pills can fetch $20 or more each, officials have said.
In response, Ross’s department is partnering with the state health department to offer education programs at all active adult centers focusing on opioid dangers and the proper disposal of pills, such as Percocet and Vicodin.
A national trend
Articles about the trend have started surfacing nationally, including an AARP Bulletin report in June that said retirement-age Americans have become a “new source of illicit prescription painkillers sold on the open market.” While financial struggles prompt some to sell, others are victimized by dealers, caregivers and family members, the AARP report says.
District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said Wednesday she has heard anecdotal reports about elderly people selling pills to pay for living expenses, but she was not aware of any arrests in the county.
“We would take that very seriously,” Salavantis said. “Just because of age, it does not mean you can commit a criminal act and not be held accountable.”
Salavantis said she and Ross have discussed the need for elderly opioid awareness programs because they are more likely to have medication on hand. Drop-off centers for unused pharmaceuticals continue to expand, and Salavantis said her office will make disposal arrangements if someone is homebound.
State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski said Wednesday he’s certain the furnishing of drugs by the elderly is occurring, but he was not aware of any statistics.
“The opioid epidemic is reaching all corners of the state and impacting people of all ages and economic statuses, so it’s not surprising people would turn to the elderly to steal or buy drugs,” Tarkowski said.
State Police launched a prescription drug drop-off at many barracks, including the local one in Wyoming, largely due to a concern older residents have unused medication that can make them a “target of misuse,” he said.
In a recent release, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the state has added resources to attack the problem of prescription drugs channeled into the wrong hands, with arrests for unlawful diversions up 72 percent from a year ago.
“The illegal diversion of prescription drugs is fueling the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Lots of pills
Ross delivered another alarming discovery in his presentation.
On average, 900,000 to 950,000 opioid pills are prescribed to Luzerne County residents each month, he said, repeating the statistic to emphasize its significance. The county has a population of around 316,380.
“That means every man, woman and child can have three a month,” Ross said. “We’re sitting here trying to put out the fire, and someone’s throwing wood onto the fire.”
When the county filed suit against a string of opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors in November, county Manager C. David Pedri pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic indicating 85 of every 100 county residents had opioid prescriptions in 2016.
The epidemic started in the mid- to late-1990s, when the medical community started treating pain as an additional vital sign while pharmaceutical companies marketed prescription pain medication as non-addictive, Ross told council. Many became hooked on the pills and turned to heroin when they could no longer access or afford them, he said.
Experts have predicted the opioid epidemic won’t peak for two or three years, Ross said.
“We’ve been digging this hole for 20 years. This hole is so large, that it’s not one we’re going to climb out of immediately.”
Ross said his office is pumping out informational literature, formed a coalition to attack the epidemic on several fronts and implemented a “warm handoff” program to get hospitalized overdose patients into detox and treatment.
He held up a dose of the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone, saying it is a “miracle drug” that has saved many lives.
The Wilkes-Barre Fire Department administered 410 doses of the antidote in 2017, he said. After deducting double and triple doses to the same individuals due to the presence of synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil, more than 350 people survived due to the antidote in Wilkes-Barre alone, Ross said.
The county had 155 drug overdose deaths in 2017, which means the city’s antidote intervention prevented the death count from exceeding 500.
Combating the epidemic will require help from many groups, Ross said.
“Hopefully, together we can all take care of this problem,” he told council.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.