US attorney shares personal motivation for fighting opioid epidemic

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – “In my 30 years of law enforcement, I haven’t seen anything like it,” Bruce Brandler, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said Friday.

“It” is the heroin and opioid epidemic ravaging the nation. A thousand people a week die in the United States from overdoses. The commonwealth contributes its fair share.

“We’re at a rate of 10 a day dying from overdoses,” Brandler said of Pennsylvania. “That’s a horrific figure.”

Brandler helped write new guidelines for the federal fight against the heroin epidemic. They were released Dec. 1.

The strategy includes a get-tougher policy on heroin dealers. Brandler says his office will be less likely to offer plea deals to dealers. If firearms are involved, Brandler said those convicted will be spending a lot of time behind bars.

He said the feds will also be cracking down on doctors who overprescribe opioids because, he says, 80 percent of addicts get hooked initially on pain medications.

Pill pushers should consider themselves warned.

“There are criminal penalties involved if you do it for no valid purpose other than to make money,” Brandler said.

But he concedes that his middle district, which encompasses 30 counties, can’t jail its way out of the opioid crisis. His plan also includes treatment, education and compassion.

He winces as he thinks of the carnage wrought by addiction and the crime that so frequently comes with it.

“For every death, there are hundreds of other addicts who are out there suffering from this addiction and families who are dealing with the impact of their addiction,” Brandler said.

And dealing with the impact is something this tough prosecutor had to do 10 years ago. His son Erik died of an overdose in Cumberland County.

“I never would have guessed that he would have engaged in heroin use at the age of 16,” Brandler said.

He admits Erik had previously been caught with ecstasy but says he was startled it had graduated to heroin. He said Erik was in intensive treatment, was drug tested, and appeared clean and sober.

Federal prosecutors are rarely chatty and typically the strong silent types, but Brandler is sharing his painful and personal story, hoping to save other parents the anguish he suffered; also because education and public awareness are an important part of the new guidelines to combat heroin addiction.

He says he was living in a nice neighborhood with a nice house, a loving wife, a golden retriever and a Volvo station wagon. It was a Norman Rockwell life shattered by drug abuse. His message to parents is pretty simple.

“Open your eyes to the situation,” he said. “The problem has become so widespread that it affects every socio-economic strata that we have in society. If you feel you’re immune to it, you’re wrong.”

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