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By RICK BOSTON
Staff Writer 

First Assistant DA Pete Weeks Describes Drug Crisis

 

March 21, 2019

Rick Boston

Randy Feathers (right) and Micheal Fiore (second from right) present Blair County Law enforcement awards to (from left) Deputies Brandon Ross and Trinitie Applas of the Blair County Sheriff's Office and Patrolman James Brantner of the Blair Township Police Department. The annual award is given to law enforcement individuals who have demonstrated their commitment to making the community a safe place to live and raise families.

Operation Our Town was the focus of the 54th meeting of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club meeting held at the Casino at Lakemont Park on Thursday morning, March 14.

Operation Our Town was formed in 2006 as a partnership between concerned citizens and law enforcement to combat drug activity and the crimes associated with it. Operation Our Town President Michael Fiore said there has been a "drug crisis" in this area for more than 20 years, and that it does not discriminate in whom it affects.

"If it hasn't affected your family or someone you know, chances are it will," he said.

Blair County First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks said that fighting to get drugs and those who bring them into the county off the streets is a top priority for his office, and that the partnership with Operation Our Town is valuable to that cause.

"Operation Our Town was formed in response to drugs, and drug related crime against our community," he said. "It is a three-prong attack on the blight of drug use­ – Prevention, proven treatment methods and law enforcement."

Weeks said that while law enforcement is out in the community every day trying to get drugs off the street, he said the end of mandatory sentencing in 2013 in Pennsylvania for all manners of crime, including drug trafficking, has made it harder to keep drug dealers off the streets.

'The end of mandatory sentencing, and the lack of certainty with drug dealers, has served to return dealers who were previously being incarcerated for longer periods and returning them back to our community faster than before," he said.

Weeks said that in addition to drug dealers getting back on the streets sooner, he has seen an increase in repeat offenders.

"We also deal with repeat offenders who, while waiting trial, go out and re-offend and commit other crimes," he said.

Weeks said that last year alone he has seen some people arrested multiple times for drug trafficking and related offenses.

Weeks said the heroin and opioid epidemic has been growing for years, but in 2013 they began to see a trend that caused more overdose deaths than before.

"In 2013, heroin was made available in our communities, including Blair County, at a far purer quality and a far lower price than ever before," he said. "This resulted in nothing short of an epidemic."

Weeks said that with the purity of heroin that infiltrated the area in 2013, people started lacing it with fentanyl and carfentanil.

Fentanyl is a drug that is about 50 to 60 times more powerful than morphine, and carfentanil, which is an elephant tranquilizer, "is a thousand times more powerful than heroin," he said. "This brought about the apex of the opioid crisis and resulted in scores of overdose deaths here in Blair County and neighboring counties across the state."

Weeks said that 2018 brought about a dip in heroin use, not because drug activity declined, but because the market "became flooded" with laboratory-grade crystal methamphetamine.

"It has become possible, even for people in Blair County, as rural as we are, to obtain this lab-grade crystal meth cheaper and of better quality than someone could manufacture it in their home using the one-pot method."

Weeks said that the influx of crystal meth has led to a new epidemic in the community, and while police are seeing fewer overdose deaths from crystal meth, death is possible and will occur.

Weeks said the popularity of crystal meth among drug users has made law enforcement's job more difficult, and more dangerous when making an arrest.

"We see a change in behavior," he said. "Heroin addicts, while on heroin – that drug in and of itself does not make them innately violent or difficult to deal with. Methamphetamine makes someone violent and difficult to deal with. That is the actual effect of the drug."

Weeks said getting unused or expired prescription pills out of the home is an important step in combatting opioid abuse among the young.

He said that with the help of Operation Our Town, prescription take-back boxes have been set up in various police departments throughout the county, and that last year more than 1,500 pounds of unused prescription drugs were collected.

"Prescription drugs are often targeted by youth within the home or those who would seek to commit burglary or other property crimes to steal those drugs," he said.

Weeks said his office, along with local law enforcement and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, are all working together to combat the trafficking of drugs in Blair County and are going after more than the street-level dealers.

"Typically, how we see it when we have a fatal overdose, is the person who gave them the drugs is usually not the big dealer who is selling for profit," he said. "We have tried to work up the ladder where possible and arrest the person responsible for selling these drugs for profit, in addition to those below them."

Weeks said there is a protocol set up by local law enforcement, the District Attorney's office and the coroner's office to investigate local drug deaths, and that has led to a lot of arrests.

"That protocol has led to the arrest of many individuals, unfortunately for the crime of drug delivery resulting in death," he said.

Weeks stressed that although heroin overdose deaths have declined, they still occur frequently in the county.

"Even with the rise in meth we have seen, fatal heroin and fentanyl overdoses occur on a regular basis," he said.

 

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