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Secretary Of Pennsylvania Drug And Alcohol Programs Says 2021 Overdose Deaths Could Exceed Previous Records

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On today’s program: Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith reflects on how the pandemic and end to Gov. Tom Wolf’s opioid disaster declaration has affected the department’s work; Spotlight PA reporter Ed Mahon explains why an investigation into exactly how many people are using medical marijuana to treat opioid addiction in the commonwealth has been stalled by state agencies; and a listener asks why trolley tracks continue to exist on Chestnut Street, as part of our Good Question series. 

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith says drug use disorder is rising
(0:00 - 12:08)

Last month, Gov, Tom Wolf’s opioid disaster declaration ended. The Republican controlled legislature rejected Wolf’s call to return from summer recess and extend the declaration. At the center of this disaster declaration is the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, which is tasked with reducing drug and alcohol dependency across the state.

“The one thing that it has given us the opportunity to do is reflect a bit on what we learned through the pandemic which is the need to really more closely align behavioral health services, so that intersection between mental health and wellness and substance use disorder or addiction,” says Department Secretary Jen Smith.

Overall, says Smith, the end of the disaster declaration hasn’t had too many repercussions for her department. The only program that experienced some issues was the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which the state House recently extended.

Smith says the last few years have been particularly challenging for her department, battling the opioid epidemic and then the COVID-19 pandemic on top of that. The state saw the height of the opioid epidemic in 2017 with about 5,400 deaths, says Smith.

“Unfortunately when we look at the 2020 data, we’re right around 5,200 deaths,” she says. “Preliminary data from 2021 looks like we really may hit that same or exceed that peek number from 2017, definitely back where we were a few years ago in terms of those statistics.”

Smith says they are seeing more substance combinations, like fentanyl and cocaine, which can cause more clusters of overdoses and fatalities. She says another struggle is the growth of the drug market in Philadelphia.

Moving forward, Smith says she is encouraged that the Pennsylvania legislature seems unified in addressing issues related to the opioid epidemic.

The state Health Department has been ordered to release data on medical marijuana treatment for opioid addiction
(12:18 - 18:27)

Pennsylvania was the first state to permit medical marijuana to be used to treat opioid use disorder. But just how many Pennsylvanians have received medical marijuana cards for that purpose or for any of the state’s 23 qualifying conditions isn’t clear.

Spotlight PA reporter Ed Mahon is trying to find out. The state Health Department denied Mahon’s first request for this data.

“What they told me is they have to protect patient and caretaker information,” says Mahon. “I was after aggregate data, not information that would identify any individual.”

The state has put out raw numbers on the total number of patients registered, over 600,000 patients so far, and some rankings on most used conditions, but Mahon is investigating where marijuana use for opioid use disorder falls in that ranking.

Mahon filed a request with the Office of Open Records, which ruled in Mahon’s favor earlier this month, saying the information was a public record and to give it would not violate privacy rights.

“The Department of Health has until early October to either provide the information or fight it in court, essentially,” says Mahon. The department has to respond by October 4.

Why are there trolley tracks on Chestnut Avenue?
(18:36 - 22:30)

For a couple blocks on Chestnut Street in Pittsburgh’s East Allegheny neighborhood, two sets of trolley tracks peek out from the red brick road. As part of our Good Question series, 90.5 WESA’s Katie Blackley reports on how those tracks survived.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Hello! My name’s Rebecca Reese, and I’m a rising Junior English Writing / Digital Narrative & Interactive Design student at the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, I’m working as a production assistant for The Confluence. I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area my entire life, and have a passion for technical audio production as well as social issues, especially those relevant locally. Funding of the Internship Program is made possible with a grant from the American Eagle Outfitters Foundation.
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