We’ve long held marijuana to be a “gateway drug,” but now lobby legislators to legalize its medicinal and recreational use, a la Washington and Colorado. And then, surprise, surprise, headlines such as: “Heroin a ‘growing epidemic’: Pennsylvania ‘cannot arrest its way out of crisis’” arrive on our doorstep.

Ironically, heroin was originally manufactured by Germany’s Bayer Pharmaceutical Company back in 1898. Thought to be “non-addictive,” its intended use was to treat tuberculosis, as well as morphine addiction. Unfortunately, heroin has proven even more addictive than morphine, ditto for methadone, its supposed non-addictive remedy. And so round and round we’ve gone…

Known by such nicknames as H, Big H, Brown Sugar, Skag, and Nose Drops, it can be injected, smoked, or sniffed. And not only is heroin highly addictive, it’s also painful to give up, deadly, and can be had for cheap.

You see, whereas opiates like oxycodone can reportedly cost $30 for just one pill on the street, a bag of heroin apparently runs between just $5 and $10. In fact, a whole bundle—10 to 13 bags–can be purchased for about $100, making it even cheaper than marijuana.

Unfortunately, explains, Montgomery County Assistant Public Defender Hindi Kranzel: “I think it’s one of the most difficult and challenging of addictions that people have. It gets in you and you just chase it and you continue chasing it until you’re dead. It controls every single thing that they think, that they do, every action that they take. Every thought that comes in their mind is wrapped around heroin. It’s their girlfriend, their boyfriend, their lover… Heroin is their entire world.”

The “rush,” of course, is always the lure, but it comes at a price. In the short-term, it’s often accompanied by slowed breathing, drowsiness, fuzzy thinking, and sometimes even a coma. Over the long-haul, the results can be everything from bad teeth, inflamed gums, and muscle weakness to memory loss, respiratory illness, and insomnia.

In either scenario, an overdose can kill by impeding breathing.

Despite such facts, heroin is on the uptick in Pennsylvania. Indeed, the Commonwealth ranks third highest in its use by those twelve and older in the entire country, just behind California and Illinois. Plus…

• About 34,000 12- to 17-year-olds try heroin for the first time every year.
• About 52,150 Pennsylvanians are currently being treated for their addictions; about 760,703 remain untreated.
• Overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids, including prescription drugs, are up 470% over the past 20 years.
• In the past 5 years, such overdoses accounted for the deaths of nearly 3,000 residents.

And, unfortunately, Montgomery County has a share in those statistics. In fact…

1. Roughly 20% of our district attorney’s office caseload is drug-related, be it for possession or delivery. Another 25% are for such drug-related offenses as driving while under the influence.
2. There were more than 40 heroin-related deaths here in 2012, up from 37 in 2011.
3. Among those deaths were two Pottsgrove High School graduates who died within seven months of each other: Stephen Watchorn and Trevor Mackie.
4. So far in 2014, 43 people have died from overdoses; 16 of them occurred in just the last three months.

Know, too, that, while heroin is not typically sold on county streets–as are such drugs as marijuana or cocaine–it’s easily obtained by runners who purchase it in such cities as Philly and Reading and then pass it on to “friends” out here.

In fact, this breaking news highlights the scourge that heroin has become here. Reports NBC’s Dan Stamm: “A Montgomery County mother allegedly introduced her 15-year-old daughter and the girl’s teenage boyfriend to heroin and would take the couple—and sometimes an 8-year-old child—on trips to Philadelphia to buy the drug.” Apparently, they’d inject the drug on the drive back–gratefully, not the youngster.

There can be no doubt, then, that heroin is, as District Attorney Risa Ferman puts it, “the devil’s poison.” And such troubling reports, of course, beg the question: What’s being done about this growing problem out here?

Actually, a big step was taken just last month with the establishment of the Montgomery County Overdose Task Force. Headed by Chief William Kelly, Chief of the Abington Police Department, it is comprised of representatives from law enforcement, social services, educators, and the community. Its mission is to combat the drug problem—specifically heroin and prescription drug abuse. Over the next few months, preventive strategies will be developed to stem the number of related heroin overdoses and deaths, with findings due out by the end of the year or early in 2105.

Look, too, for law enforcement to be in our schools warning students of the dangers of prescription drugs and how they lead down a path to heroin.
The problem is being tackled on the state level, too, with recommendations from the recent Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s “Heroin: Combating this Growing Epidemic in Pennsylvania Report that include:

1. Tougher sentences for heroin traffickers and dealers.
2. The establishment of a statewide database documenting heroin overdoses and deaths to aid in trafficking investigations.
3. An increase in law enforcement personnel and funding for county drug task forces.

The report also offers such treatment proposals as:

1. The recognition of drug addiction as a disease.
2. Medication restrictions for treating chronic pain.
3. Pharmacist flexibility in filling partial prescriptions without jeopardizing insurance company reimbursement.
4. The promotion of drug take-back programs across Pennsylvania.
5. Increased funding for various school and community awareness programs.

Meanwhile, legislation is pending:

• Senate Bill 1180 and House Bill 1694 would expand prescription drug monitoring to help identify fraud, doctor shopping, and the improper prescribing and dispensing of drugs.

• Senate Bill 1164 would protect a person who contacts authorities about an overdose from facing criminal charges. It would also expand the availability/use of naloxone by first responders to reverse opioid overdoses.

And now comes news that Pennsylvania is joining New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts when investigating heroin trafficking across state lines. And this is none too soon since, apparently, most large-heroin trafficking cases involve crossing these four states in an attempt to “outmaneuver” authorities. Other states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic are sure to follow suit.

The rest is up to us parents. Having lost her son to heroin, Colleen Watchorn urges all of us: “Don’t be stupid and think not my kid. Don’t sugarcoat it.”

And that, of course, is the bottom line.