To stem 'tsunami of death,' grand jury calls for mandatory minimums for heroin dealers

Montgomery-County-District-Attorney-Kevin-Steele
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele; released grand jury report Wednesday.

Citing what he called "the tsunami of death," Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele on Wednesday released a rare grand-jury report on the “once in-a-generation” opioid epidemic that calls for mandatory minimum jail terms for heroin dealers.

“There is no place in Montgomery County that is immune to this,” said Steele, referring to the drug problem that has swept the nation. "We can’t arrest our way out of this. ... This is a public health issue."

At a news conference in Norristown, Steele said he was releasing the report, assembled by a 23-member grand jury over 13 months, in an effort to “slow down the tsunami of death that these drugs are creating.”

A grand jury rarely is convened for such an investigation, Steele said.

It heard testimony from addicts and parents of addicts, as well as law enforcement officials, treatment centers, and members of the medical community.

In Montgomery County, 249 drug-related deaths were recorded in 2016, a steep rise from the 177 of 2015.

Of the 249, 108 were found with traces of fentanyl, which often is mixed with heroin and is 60 times stronger. That number is up from 35 in 2015.

In addition to mandatory minimum sentences for those involved in significant heroin transactions, the report listed five other recommendations, including a call for a statewide online system to identify the availability of treatment beds, a recurring problem for addicts seeking rehabilitation.

Montgomery County already has taken steps to deal with the increase in overdoses.

Every police department in the county is equipped with naloxone, a prescription antidote for an opioid overdose, or is training officers on how to use it. In the last 20 months, naloxone has been used in 134 rescues in the county, officials said.

Marissa Wadsworth of Norristown, who had testified before the grand jury, spoke at the news conference about her son. He was introduced to prescription drugs at a high school party during his senior year, and three years later died of a heroin overdose.

“It’s a living hell. ... I think of all the things I could have differently,” Wadsworth said.

John Becker was a detective sergeant with the Hatboro Police Department before his addiction to opioids cost him his career. He spent 15 days in jail in connection with drug-related weapons counts.

“We judge the behavior, and not what's causing it,” Becker said.

The report concluded that to overcome the crisis, strategies must “cross political lines."

“We have no other choice. We have to act. And we have to act now.”​

 Jbarwick@philly.com

@JohnRyanBarwick