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Heroin arrests down in Franklin Co., but officials concerned

March 26, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The number of heroin arrests in Franklin County has declined sharply since 2001, but that may be due mostly to a change in tactics by dealers rather than a downturn in demand, according to a report by the Franklin County Drug Task Force.

"I don't think the incidence of heroin has decreased. I think it's probably increased," Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson said recently. "Your figures on fatal overdoses is just the tip of the iceberg" of a larger problem, he said.

"Prior to 1998, the drug task force had no heroin arrests, seizures or investigations," according to a task force report supplied by Nelson. In a two-day period that year, however, authorities made five arrests and seized 110 packets or vials of heroin.

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"One guy was arrested, and he rolled on another guy, and he did the same, etc.," the report stated.

In 1999, there was only one heroin investigation and arrest in Waynesboro, Pa.

The numbers jumped in 2000, when the task force hired two detectives "tasked with conducting investigations into heroin trafficking, as well as other drugs," the report said. That year, there were 21 investigations, a dozen arrests and 238 heroin seizures.

More than half the drugs seized that year were taken on Jan. 2, when a car returning from Philadelphia was searched, according to the report. The 120 packets found constituted the largest seizure in the county's history.

That was followed by the seizure of 46 bags found in another car returning from Philadelphia on Feb. 18.

"Three people were arrested ... including the woman who had (hid) all of the contraband" on her body, the report alleged.

Two of the people arrested then were arrested again in April when another vehicle was stopped and 54 bags of heroin were found.

When dealers and users returning from Philadelphia realized that tips and surveillance were resulting in arrests, "the big hit traffic stops quickly subsided," the report stated. Dealers stopped talking about how and when they were making trips to Philadelphia, according to the report.

The task force changed tactics and began making arrests through undercover purchases in the county. In 2001, the task force conducted an all-time high of 42 investigations, making 58 arrests and seizing 120 doses of heroin.

That year, authorities also saw a shift in where dealers were purchasing heroin from the "Badlands" area of north Philadelphia to Baltimore where sales of the drug are more geographically widespread. Surveillance became more difficult, as did tracking dealers as they returned.

An investigation in 2001 that resulted in 36 people being charged made investigations more difficult, the report stated.

"Our sources of information used in 2000 and 2002 are no longer useful to us, because most people eventually figured out who set them up," the report said.

The number of task force investigations dropped to a dozen in 2002, with 15 arrests and 103 seizures. Last year, there were 15 investigations with three arrests and 70 packets and vials seized, the task force said.

At about the same time heroin started to show up in criminal investigations, people began seeking treatment, said James Rodgers, the administrator for drug and alcohol programs in Franklin and Fulton counties.

The number of clients placed into treatment and case management went from none in the late 1990s to approximately 50 a year, a number Rodgers said has held fairly steady. Of the 375 people placed in treatment or case management last year, 53 were heroin abusers - a third of the number treated for alcohol problems.

Rodgers' department tries to convince abusers to get into in-patient treatment, the longer the better, Rodgers said. Since the agency handles those on medical assistance and without insurance, Rodgers said Drug and Alcohol may be seeing only about half of those who are actually seeking treatment.

The number of heroin addicts in Franklin County Prison tends to fluctuate, Warden John Wetzel said. There were 13 people on heroin detoxification in April 2003, but just two in February of this year.

The 10-day detoxification protocol has prisoners on medications to reduce nausea and seizures for five days, after which they are weaned off medications, Wetzel said.

About a year ago, Wetzel said one prisoner overdosed but survived after snorting several vials of heroin he had hidden in his rectum at the time of his arrest.

Wetzel said heroin-addicted inmates pose a significant problem for his staff, but alcohol withdrawal is more serious in terms of numbers of inmates and the severity of seizures.

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