The Lead

With increase in polysubstance use, state agency will ‘expand’ focus from opioid epidemic

By: - October 18, 2021 1:39 pm

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith, speaks during a press conference, which discussed the need to expand our lens of focus from opioids to fighting overall substance use disorder with the increase of polysubstance and stimulant use across the commonwealth, inside Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Harrisburg on Monday, October 18, 2021 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

The state agency tasked with fighting the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania said that it will now focus on substance use disorders as a whole, as the agency tries to combat a rise in people combining such dangerous drugs as fentanyl and heroin.

The new approach, announced Monday by Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith, will “expand” the agency’s focus to address “the increase of polysubstance and stimulant use across the commonwealth.”

“With the increase in polysubstance use and stimulants across the commonwealth, we have recommitted ourselves to tackling substance use disorder as a whole with the goal of offsetting the devastating increase in overdose deaths,” Smith said. 

For two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019, Pennsylvania saw a decrease in overdose rates across the commonwealth. In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, 5,200 overdoses were reported, according to Smith, an increase of more than 700 from previous years. 

So far in 2021, 2,279 overdose deaths have been reported, according to the state Department of Health. 

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“Given the increased overdose deaths in 2020, the substance use and mental health challenges COVID-19 has exacerbated, and the ending of the opioid disaster declaration in 2021, our resolve to address the crisis remains unchanged,” Smith said in a statement. “However, this moment in time gives us the opportunity to improve upon what we learned and adjust our strategy accordingly.”

Speaking with reporters Monday, Smith said that law enforcement agencies across Pennsylvania and DDAP have seen an increase in polysubstance use, or consuming more than one drug at a time, and stimulant use. 

While some cases of polysubstance use are intentional, Smith said, DDAP and state law enforcement agencies are seeing many more cases of accidental or unintentional combinations being used, such as fentanyl and cocaine or fentanyl and heroin. 

Jerry Daley, executive director of Liberty Mid Atlantic High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), an arm of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration tasked with combating drug trafficking, said that in many cases, individuals are “Unaware that fentanyl has been added” to other substances. 

Daley added that HIDTA is “continuing to see cocaine laced with fentanyl” in its seizures. 

“Fentanyl is so lethal,” Smith told reporters, adding that the increased appearance of fentanyl makes it “even more important that we have access to naloxone.” Smith urged first responders, law enforcement and the public to carry the overdose reversal drug. Naloxone is free to first responders and the public who wish to carry it and can be requested on DDAP’s website.

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.