Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. November 27, 2022.

Editorial: Don’t gamble with kids? The state should heed its own advice.

Running public service announcements will not stop the social ills spurred by Pennsylvania’s reckless policy on gambling.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has a silly solution for a serious problem.

Scores of customers at local casinos continue to leave kids locked in their cars while they go inside and gamble.

So how does the gambling board plan to address this life and death issue? With public service announcements. Ads on TV, radio, and social media will contain the following message: “Don’t Gamble with Kids.” There’s even a website.

Is that the best the Gambling Control Board members — who get paid $145,000 a year to meet once or twice a month — could come up with?

Any parent or a guardian who leaves a child in a car to go gamble — sometimes for hours — likely has a serious addiction problem. Running a few ads is unlikely to change their behavior.

Even more disturbing, this is not a new problem. It has been going on for years at casinos across the country and throughout Pennsylvania. Several children have died. One woman went to prison after her 5-year-old grandson died in a hot car while she gambled in an Oklahoma casino.

In Pennsylvania, gamblers began leaving kids unattended soon after the first casino opened in 2006.

Legislation was passed to make it illegal to leave kids in cars. Gamblers can be arrested, fined, and banned from the casino. The casinos added signs and patrols in parking lots. Last year, the casino in Valley Forge installed infrared cameras to detect kids in cars after 22 incidents of children left unattended there.

None of those efforts have solved the problem. In fact, the number of children left unattended at Pennsylvania casinos jumped 60% this year compared to 2021. In all, there have been 269 recorded incidents involving 441 minors.

The knee-jerk response is to blame the adult for leaving the child alone. No doubt the adult is responsible. But the casinos and the state share some responsibility for the gambling addiction monster they created.

Led by former Gov. Ed Rendell, elected officials — encouraged by an army of lobbyists and donors — enabled Pennsylvania to become the second-largest casino market in the country after only Las Vegas. The state not only legalized the casinos, but is a willing and eager partner in this enterprise since it receives 54% of all the slots revenues.

Unlike Las Vegas, which at least built a thriving tourist and entertainment industry around its games of chance, Pennsylvania’s casinos cater mainly to local gamblers, including many who are elderly and on fixed incomes.

The gambling industry argues that only 2% to 3% of the adult population suffers from addiction. But that number is misleading, since most of the population doesn’t frequent a casino.

The real question is what percentage of casino customers have a gambling problem. Studies show 30% to 60% of slot machine revenues come from problem gamblers. In fact, many area gamblers visit casinos an average of three to four times a week.

In effect, the business model depends on addiction.

As such, the casinos and the state share some responsibility as enablers of that addiction. Casinos are not passive businesses. They aggressively market to their patrons, offering reward points, discounted meals, and coupons for free play.

Even more insidious, modern slot machines are sophisticated computers designed to addict. Once someone is hooked, there’s even a term for what comes next. It’s called “play to extinction.”

Rather than crack down on gamblers who leave kids in cars — or use pithy word play in questionable ad campaigns — the state should do more to help them, and other problem gamblers.

Kids left in cars are just one of many downsides caused by casinos. Studies show casinos lead to more crime, suicides, and bankruptcies. Other social ills from problem gambling include higher divorce rates, domestic abuse, child abuse, drug abuse, and depression.

Pennsylvania is already ranked among the top gambling addicted states. Yet, the push to add more mini casinos, online gambling, and sports betting will lead to more addiction.

Running public service announcements will not stop the social ills spurred by reckless government policy.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. November 27, 2022.

Editorial: APB on fentanyl

Synthetic opioid killing thousands as addiction epidemic grows deadlier

At noon on Wednesday in a Western Pennsylvania treatment clinic, a dozen people, mostly in their 30s and 40s, wait to get a prescription for Suboxone, an effective treatment medication for opioid addiction. On the wall of the waiting room are warnings about counterfeit pills and drugs laced with fentanyl, a super-potent and lethal synthetic opioid and painkiller.

Waiting to get called into the doctor’s office, a woman talks about an acquaintance who sold several OxyContin tablets to a friend, who then died of an overdose three days later. Tracing the calls on the victim’s cell phone, the police were preparing to arrest the seller, who will likely face homicide-related charges and years in prison.

“He didn’t even know fentanyl was in the pills,” she said.

Cheap and 50 times more potent than heroin, fentanyl has flooded the local street market for opioids, making a more than two-decade epidemic of opioid addiction even more deadly. Fentanyl is added to pills, heroin, cocaine and other drugs to boost the highs experienced by users, and the profits of the distributors and dealers. It significantly elevates the risk of a fatal overdose.

In Allegheny County, roughly 85% of all overdose deaths involve fentanyl — most of it exported from Mexico, India or China. In most cases, users didn’t know what they bought; in many cases, casual sellers and low-level dealers may not know, either.

So far this year, U.S. drug enforcement agents seized 20 million counterfeit pills, but that didn’t stop the epidemic of addiction and death.

“It’s so dangerous out here,” Jerome Maynor, an outreach worker for Central Outreach Resource and Referral in Pittsburgh, told an editor in October. “Fentanyl is everywhere.”

Addiction and death

Since 1999, nearly 1 million Americans have died of a drug overdose. The epidemic of opioid addiction started in the 1990s, as more people, addicted to prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, switched to heroin as a cheaper and more potent alternative.

In the last several years, overdose deaths have spiked and now amount to more than 100,000 a year, most of them due to opioids, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl and its chemical derivatives, such as carfentanil, are fueling fatalities in Western Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation.

In 2021, Allegheny County reported 719 overdose deaths, up 46% from 492 in 2018. In Pennsylvania, 5,343 people — including a record 1,276 in Philadelphia — died of an overdose last year.

Those grim statistics would have been even worse, if not for Narcan, a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose, and certain harm reduction strategies in major cities, such as fentanyl test strips.

Reducing harm

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill this month that legalized fentanyl test strips statewide for personal use, a welcome step that should curb fatal overdoses. (Such strips were already decriminalized in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.)

To avoid overdoses, people can test drugs for fentanyl. Up to now, test strips were classified as illegal drug paraphernalia. They are especially important for rural areas in Western Pennsylvania, which have less access to health care.

Unhappily, another important harm reduction bill, legalizing syringe exchange services statewide, died in committee. It should be reintroduced and passed during the next legislative session. Currently, a handful of exchanges, which restrict the spread of bloodborne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, operate in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Addiction is a public health problem; harm reduction strategies help people stay alive long enough to get treatment and a second chance.

The Pennsylvania Auditor’s General’s Office estimates the opioid epidemic costs the state roughly $25 billion a year in fatalities, health care, addiction treatment, criminal justice and lost productivity. Nearly 300,000 people in Pennsylvania are addicted to drugs.

It’s time to issue an APB on opioid addiction.

It’s no accident that the Pennsylvania legislators working the hardest on addiction are people who have lost relatives to opioid overdoses.

Rep. Jim Struzzi, R.-Indiana, had pushed for three years to legalize drug testing materials. His brother died of an overdose in 2014. The sponsor of the syringe exchange bill, Rep. Sarah Innamorato (D., Allegheny), lost her father to complications of opioid addiction in 2009.

We thank them for their life-saving work. How many more people have to die before every elected official in Pennsylvania acts with equal urgency?

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. November 28, 2022.

Editorial: More work needed on mental health capacity to stand trial

Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t fix the problem.

In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court looked at the case of a mentally ill man convicted of a crime who was charged with another crime while in state prison. A judge found the man’s profound mental illness meant that, under a 1976 law, he was incompetent to understand what had happened and why it was wrong. He couldn’t participate in his defense and therefore couldn’t stand trial.

The law acknowledges that people without the mental capacity to stand trial should not stand trial. However, as cases over the 46 years since have proved, the law has gaps. Rather than finding a solution to the problem, the law allows for many — if not most — defendants with mental illness to exist in limbo between the courts and mandated treatment.

The September ruling gives courts permission to cut to the chase, dismissing charges against a defendant who might never be able to participate in his or her defense. This isn’t a short-term mental health issue caused by drugs or one that can be cured by them. It isn’t about a mild injury or a shock to the system. This would be about wounds or illness that cannot be healed, only managed.

So that latest ruling tries to fix a hole in an old law. That’s what the courts can do. It is a tourniquet for the problem — first aid in an emergency.

Now, the Legislature and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro need to work on finding the cure. Namely, there needs to be real treatment and more treatment.

Like drug rehabilitation, too often the only mental health treatment some people get is while they are incarcerated or otherwise court-­mandated. Beds for residential treatment are not available the way they should be. Basic therapy is at a premium, with long waiting lists and high hurdles.

In Harrison, the Allegheny Valley Hospital mental health facility has just shifted to providing care only for geriatric patients. That’s good for older people in the Alle-Kiski Valley but not for younger adults in need.

These are issues that government needs to address from a legislative and executive perspective. Not only do people in the court system need treatment, but people also need treatment to keep them out of the court system.

The Supreme Court did what it could. More is needed to solve the problem.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. November 28, 2022.

Editorial: Reserve impeachment for misconduct

State legislative Republicans remain committed to a dangerous political stunt that not only threatens to disenfranchise Philadelphians but jeopardizes future state governance.

State House Republicans have voted to impeach Democratic Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, their bogeyman of the moment. Their articles of impeachment accuse Krasner of “misconduct in office,” to comport with the language of the state impeachment statute, but the particulars of those articles make clear that Krasner has not engaged in misconduct.

Rather, Krasner — who was reelected by Philadelphians in November 2021 with more than 70% of the vote — has implemented policies with which the mostly suburban and rural House Republican caucus disagrees. Republican sponsors of the impeachment claim Krasner inappropriately has used his prosecutorial discretion and, as a result, has failed to diminish gun crime in the city.

That is farcical as a matter of politics because the Republican legislative majorities, far more so than Krasner, are responsible for gun violence because they steadfastly have refused to allow Philadelphia to act against gun trafficking.

And it is thin gruel for impeachment. Prosecutorial policy is not misconduct. And Philadelphia voters already have passed their judgment on Krasner’s performance. Contrast those flimsy grounds with those that were used in the most recent impeachment procedure. In 1994, the Legislature impeached and convicted Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen for his role in a conspiracy to illegally obtain prescription drugs. That is misconduct.

Beyond the practical absurdity of Republican lawmakers from the hinterlands attempting to dictate Philadelphians’ choice of district attorney, the impeachment is a dangerous precedent.

Impeaching a local official for his policy preferences inherently is undemocratic. Worse, it opens the door to making impeachment proceedings a standard tactic by lawmakers eager to score political points with their bases. It won’t be long before you won’t be able to keep track of your impeachments without your scorecard.

Since conviction by the Senate requires 33 votes and there are 29 Republican senators, it is not likely. But it also is not the point of the exercise. It’s a political dog and pony show meant to demonize the legislative majority’s opposition and, as such, an affront to fair governance in a representative democracy.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. November 27, 2022.

Editorial: Pass emergency rule for roads, environment

Due to the irresponsible, shameful and predictable conduct of the state House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, Pennsylvania could lose up to $800 million in federal highway money.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, Pennsylvania has until Dec. 16 to implement a regulation to reduce emissions of “volatile organic compounds,” chemical air pollutants, from gas wells, processing equipment and pipelines. The regulation would have the added benefit of reducing methane emissions, a major driver of atmospheric warming, because the same technology used to capture volatile organic compounds also captures methane.

The true deadline is not Dec. 16 but Nov. 30, Wednesday, the end of the legislative session. If the state does not implement the regulation by then, it would have to be introduced in the next session of the Legislature, which would guarantee that the state could not implement by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Dec. 16 deadline for cutting off federal highway money.

The state rule has been under consideration by the Legislature for more than a year. The state Department of Environmental Protection originally wanted to apply a single rule to all gas operations statewide. But due to objections by some lawmakers, the DEP broke it into two parts — one covering modern deep drilling and fracking as practiced across the Marcellus and Utica shale fields, and another covering shallow, conventional wells.

But in a fitting swan song for retiring Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalf of Butler County, long a lap dog for the gas industry, the “environmental” committee that he heads, with scant notice on Nov. 14, disapproved the final rule.

That triggered a 14-day waiting period for beginning the process to finalize the rule — Monday, two days before the close of the legislative session.

The pollution reduction is required by federal law. The DEP regulation has been approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.

Wednesday, the state Environmental Quality Board has scheduled a meeting to consider passing the regulation as an emergency rule. It’s an unprecedented step, but a fair answer to unprecedented obstruction.

The board should adopt the regulation to improve the state’s air quality while ensuring its continuing access to hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed highway funds.

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