Methamphetamine use is approaching “epidemic status” in Lancaster County, the county's top prosecutor said this week.
The claim marks a shift in drug emphasis in a county that has been grappling with an unprecedented opioid epidemic the past few years.
Meth has not replaced heroin, District Attorney Craig Stedman said.
“Rather, we continue to target both substances, and have noticed steep increase in meth use and sales,” Stedman said in a news release.
So far this year, the Lancaster County Drug Task Force has made 20 heroin-related arrests and 30 meth-related arrests. By comparison, only three meth related arrests were made in 2013, according to the district attorney’s office.
The drug task force, which works under the district attorney’s office throughout the county, attributes the increase to a change in drug dealing tied to targeted enforcement of heroin dealers and awareness of the fatality of opioid overdoses.
Meth use doesn’t carry the immediate risk of death by overdose that opioids do, but nonetheless is a deadly threat, according to health experts.
Dangers of meth
Dr. Michael J. Reihart, emergency services medical director at Lancaster General Health, said meth is “highly addictive and really hard on the body,” a stimulant more powerful than cocaine that is known to cause heart and brain damage and increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, HIV and violent behaviors.
Meth can be injected, snorted, smoked or swallowed, Reihart said, and users experience cycles of ups and downs. Notable side effects are paranoia, tooth decay often referred to as “meth mouth,” and severe itching.
“You'll see people have skin lesions where they scratch their faces thinking they have insects on them,” Reihart said, noting that meth users often look liked they “aged 100 years in six months.”
Fatal overdoses down, overdoses up
The number of fatal opioid overdoses continues to decrease in Lancaster County.
Fifty-four people died from opioid overdose in the first six months of this year, compared to annual totals of 167 in 2017 and 117 the year before, according to data from OverdoseFreePA, which tracks overdoses from coroners across the Commonwealth.
If that trend continues, around 108 people are likely to fatally overdose from opioids this year, according to Lancaster County’s Joining Forces Coalition.
Still, general overdose calls overall are up, according to the district attorney's office, with an average of 30 calls a week.
And meth-related fatal overdoses are becoming more prominent, according to the Lancaster County Drug Task Force. Meth has been present in 15 overdoses this year compared to eight in 2016, according to OverdoseFreePA.
County commissioner Josh Parsons, a member of Joining Forces, said the coalition was formed to make a “rapid reduction” of heroin and opioid overdose deaths.
“The successful results are very encouraging and a confirmation that what we are doing is working,” Parsons said.
“The only solution is a multifaceted one. Reducing the supply of drugs on the street is one big part of that. The police of Lancaster County are doing outstanding work on this issue,” Parsons said.
Trend beyond Lancaster County
Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan told LNP Wednesday he agreed with Stedman.
“Meth is making a comeback,” he said.
A lot of the meth in Chester County is coming from Lancaster County, he said, based on information from informants and investigations.
Hogan also noted an increase of fentanyl and meth overdoses, a much more lethal combination than just meth.
While an increase in meth in Lancaster and Chester counties may exist, it’s not part of a statewide trend, according to Patrick Trainor, spokesman for the Philadelphia branch of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“Methamphetamine never really went away,” Trainor said.
The same Mexican transnational criminal organizations — cartels — distributing heroin and fentanyl are distributing meth, he said.
“I don’t work in Lancaster. The DA there would certainly know his jurisdiction far better than I do,” Trainor said. “From a regional perspective, there’s no lack of available methamphetamine.”
York County prosecutors have been running into more meth, but mostly in it’s more recreational form of “Molly” or ecstasy, according to district attorney’s spokesman Kyle King.
“We see a lot of people attempting to use that to get away from heroin,” King told LNP.