‘Tragic and too often fatal:’ In York, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey touts bill fighting fentanyl imports

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., talks about efforts to fight fentanyl trafficking during an event in York, Pa., on 3/21/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

YORK, Pa. — In 2014, it took Dave Sunday no time at all to tally up the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in York County. That’s because there weren’t any.

That’s not the case anymore.

In 2018, there were 129 fatal overdoses in York County where fentanyl, a synthetic opioid so lethal that even a small amount can be deadly, was a “substantial factor” in the death.

“This is an extraordinary public health concern,” Sunday, York County’s elected district attorney, said Thursday. “We are utilizing everything we have to fight opioids and fentanyl. It has decimated our resources.”

And in a fight that big, it’s only natural to call in some backup. During a news conference at the York County Government Center, he got some in the form of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who was on hand to tout a bipartisan effort to crack down on fentanyl imports.

Toomey, along with U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., is sponsoring legislation that would withhold foreign aid from countries that don’t cooperate with American efforts to halt the importation of the drug and its constituent parts.

Most of the fentanyl now coming into the United States originates in China, Toomey said.

York County District Attorney David Sunday at event in York County on 3/21/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

“Two milligrams of fentanyl, which is just a few grains of salt, is enough to kill most adults,” Toomey said Thursday. “This synthetic drug has accounted for 30,000 of the 70,000 overdose deaths in the United States since 2017.” The drug also played a role in “two-thirds” of the nearly 5,500 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania that year, he said.

An October 2018 report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency on opioids in Pennsylvania found that heroin and fentanyl availability was “widespread” in the Keystone State, affecting nearly all of the state’s 67 counties. The state’s death rate of 43 per 100,000 population was “significantly higher” than the national average of 22 deaths per 100,000 people, the federal data indicated.

Even so, the report did note that “multi-disciplinary efforts between public health and public safety have resulted in documented progress in some Pennsylvania counties.” The document put a particular focus on drug-fighting efforts in Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania and Franklin County in central Pennsylvania.

Toomey took note of those efforts. But some state officials believe even more needs to be done.

State Sen. Mike Regan, a former U.S. marshal and a Cumberland County Republican, is sponsoring legislation that would impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences on fentanyl dealers. That push has come even as the criminal justice system has moved away from incarceration laws that filled jails and drove up prison costs.

“People selling fentanyl would go to jail for a long time,” said Regan, who also attended the news conference. “We can’t mess around with this stuff anymore.”

Toomey said he’s optimistic that his bill, which is now before a Senate committee, will get a vote by the full Senate and eventually land on President Donald Trump’s desk.

“I think there’s a greater appreciation and awareness” of the severity of fentanyl abuse and trafficking, he said.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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