The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

July 6, 2013

Heroin blamed for Johnstown’s woes

JOHNSTOWN — Heroin appears to be the major cause of Johnstown’s crime problem.

The drug was singled out in a report released by the Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission on Wednesday. Locally sold heroin was described by the panel as particularly dangerous because of its high purity.

The panel met from January through June to examine the causes of crime in the city.

State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johns­town, the commission’s chairman, thinks the influx of heroin has led to a spike in crime over the past few years while negatively impacting the community in many ways. Nearly 300 burglaries or break-ins and more than 150 assaults occurred last year in Johns­town, a city with a population of about 20,000.

“It’s my view that the common denominator in all of these problems that we’re trying to deal with – whether they’re housing, rehabilitation, law enforcement or education – are all connected to the fact we have a different heroin drug problem today,” said Barbin, who represents the 71st district. “If we don’t deal with it and support local law enforcement, we’re going to have a bigger problem tomorrow. And it won’t just be a problem for the city; it will be a problem for the whole area.”

The report supplied no specific information about the amount of heroin sold locally.

However, Barbin said the drug has become prevalent because dealers can sell it for about three times more in Johnstown than in large cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. Plus, according to Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan, individuals in the drug trade seem to feel less threatened in the region than elsewhere.

“They view our area as being safer here,” Callihan said. “If you sell on the wrong street corner in any of these big cities, you can get shot or you can really move into a territory where you don’t want to be. For some reason, they view our city as a safer place to do this – deliver their drugs and make more money.”

Callihan described heroin addiction as a series of steps that lead to damaged lives.

“People don’t just wake up one day and shoot heroin,” Callihan said. “They progress to heroin use. What we’re seeing is, they do that by starting with recreational drugs, moving to prescription drugs like oxycodone or OxyContin, and, once they’re addicted and they can’t get the prescriptions anymore, they’re moving to heroin. They’re doing that because buying the pills is more expensive than buying the heroin.”

Despite the potential dire consequences of taking heroin, a local market exists for the drug. It is a trade that “recognizes no municipal borders,” according to the commission’s report.

“Drug dealers are coming here because it’s supply and demand,” Callihan said.

The commission made dozens of recommendations to City Council about how to address the outbreak of heroin use and drug-related crimes.

Members called for the creation of a strategic enforcement team consisting of six members – four police officers and two intelligence analysts – to specifically target drug issues and violent crime.

Other suggestions included requesting a moratorium on Section 8 housing vouchers, encouraging expansion of neighborhood watch programs, getting businesses and nonprofit organizations to offer financial support to the Johnstown Police Department and asking the state to remove the Community Corrections Center from downtown.

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