Panel examines impact of opioid epidemic on policy, policing and community

By Kaylee Lindenmuth
News Editor

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, the KU criminal justice department fielded an in-depth panel discussion in the McFarland Student Union to analyze the opioid epidemic and its impacts on various aspects of life in Pennsylvania.

According to Kadee Crandall, a KU professor and organizer of the event, the panel was intended to feature insight and personal experiences from three key aspects of the issue: policing, rehab and policy.

“With the opioid epidemic becoming so prevalent, it’s affecting a lot of people, whether personal or a ‘you know someone who knows someone’ type of thing, so we wanted to bring it here on campus so students have the opportunity to hear all three sides as well as ask questions to professionals in the field,” Crandall said.

The panel consisted of two community officials: Raphael M. Barishansky, deputy secretary of Health Preparedness and Community Protection at the PA Department of Health and L. James Thomas, sergeant at the Lower Windsor Township Police Department in York County. A third panel member, Jeffrey Poch, executive director at Safe Harbor Easton, was also listed as a panel member but was not in attendance.

Barishansky noted that he began his career in health as an EMT in New Jersey in the 1990s on the front-lines.

“I saw a lot of overdoses, I saw what happened with secondary overdoses, I saw what happens with families when somebody in the family overdoses, as well,” Barishansky told the crowd of 50.

Barishansky added that he was appointed incident commander last January for the commonwealth’s opioid disaster declaration, bringing 11 agencies together to examine the situation.

“We knew that, at that point, a couple of things had been coming together for a few years,” said Barishansky. “We knew that street heroin prices were declining, that street heroin and other drug purity was increasing and that Pennsylvania was seeing up to 13 deaths a day.”

Barishansky added that, in the past year, the commonwealth has made progress in improving communication across state agencies and in implementing programs such as medication-assisted treatment and naloxone distribution. He added that they’re consistently working to improve.

“We’re trying to work on initiatives like housing for substance use disorder,” said Barishansky. “We’re trying to work on issues like stigma, which is a huge threat for those with substance use disorder.”

“This is a fight that impacts everybody in Pennsylvania. The opioid crisis impacts every single Pennsylvanian,” Barishansky added. “It may not impact you personally. It may impact a neighbor. It may impact somebody in your family. It may even impact somebody down the line in your family, and that’s the reason for our energy. That’s the reason for our concerted effort.”

Thomas, a 23-year veteran of law enforcement, spoke of his experiences in handling the epidemic in his small York County community.

“I know I’ve had at least ten Narcan saves myself,” Thomas said. “People think, ‘oh, it’s a small town. What could possibly happen in little Lower Windsor?’ We’re a ten thousand resident community outside of York, and we have a problem like everybody else.”

Panel moderator and KU professor Lindsey Runell asked the two what community members could do “to address the opioid problem.” Barishansky began by noting that the commonwealth fields presentations by local experts as they look for insight on potential solutions.

“I will tell you that one of the ones that would probably hit home to everyone sitting here is from a group called Kutztown Strong,” said Barishansky. “This is a multi-disciplinary initiative with significant educational elements in which they’re trying to dig in to make the community and the schools aware of what’s going on with our opioid crisis.”

“If you want to get involved, [join] Kutztown Strong,” Barishansky added. “They’ve gotten people together from the various disciplines and they’re seeing actual action and results.”

Thomas added that those impacted aren’t restricted to a single demographic, and policing has shifted as a result, as has training.

Following a one-hour discussion, the panel answered questions from the audience. Madelyn Witkoski, a junior criminal justice major from Mount Carmel, used the opportunity to thank the panel for their time and insight, adding that she had seen impacts first hand in high school.

“I think it’s great that the department had this panel,” said Witkoski. “I think a lot of students were informed. … It completely changed my outlook on it.”

Few from outside of the university community were in attendance, though KU criminal justice department chair Jonathan Kremser stressed that a regional involvement is critical.

“It’s essential that the Kutztown community and beyond is involved with this because this is a crisis that cuts across all socioeconomic levels,” said Kremser. “It involves people that are known to our community.”