The Carbon County Interagency Council offered its fourth annual Legislative Brunch on Friday at the Penn Forest Fire Co. No. 1 banquet hall. The program was hosted by the Interagency Council and Carbon County Child and Family Collaborative Board.

The annual event serves to bring together legislators, county agencies, and community members to address the most pressing issues facing our area. This year's topic was drug and alcohol abuse in Carbon County.

Presiding over the program was Wayne Nothstein, Carbon County commissioner and chairman of the Child and Family Collaborative Board. He noted that the fight against drugs keeps police departments busy investigating and testifying in court, and puts a financial burden on the criminal court system.

"This is a huge tax burden and costs our nation billions of dollars annually," said Nothstein. "We must all work together to combat the affects of drugs and become part of the solution."

He later noted that the number of problems related to drugs and alcohol is escalating in our area; the number of calls to the local Communications Center (9-1-1) for drug-related issues has more than doubled over the past six years, from 206 calls to 420 calls last year.

The program began with Rich Mroczka, executive director of Carbon-Monroe-Pike Drug and Alcohol, sharing statistics about drug and alcohol use in Carbon County as reported from students in each of the county's school districts. He noted that while alcohol abuse is declining in the area, the number of people abusing prescription drugs and opiates like heroin, Percocet and OxyContin is increasing. This is likely due to the relatively easy access and low cost of these drugs.

Mroczka also noted that if local communities and educators think that drugs aren't a problem at their school, it likely isn't true. During the 2011-2012 school year, more than 90 students in Carbon County admitted to using heroin within a 30-day period; an additional 400 students admitted to recreationally using prescription pain medication like Vicodin or Percocet, and more than 500 used marijuana.

At least 1,000 students in the county (all under age 21) reported that they drank alcohol within a 30-day period.

"We know that students are using drugs, and using alcohol, which is also a drug," he said. "We do have a drug problem in Carbon County."

Sharing the personal side of drug abuse were Rocky Ahner, president of the Lehighton Area School Board, and Karen Flexer, a parent who lost her son to a drug overdose.

Ahner spoke of three young men in our community who died from drug use in a short period of time.

"It might be different names in your town, but every town has them. These are just the kids that I knew," said Ahner, who at times had trouble keeping his composure.

He noted that when these young men first died, the community rallied, demanding answers and searching for ways to combat the local drug problem. Now that some time has passed, people have become less concerned.

"Do we need to have three more deaths in the community to keep this going?" he asked. "Why does it take deaths to make things happen?"

Flexer, whose son Brett died two years ago of a drug overdose at the age of 20, noted that her son was not a habitual drug user. He did use drugs on occasion but had no problems passing drug screening tests for high school and college athletic programs. The night he died, Flexer said that her son went out with friends and was drinking alcohol, then took a pill that was offered to him at a party. The next morning, she found him unresponsive in his bed.

"When I hear parents say that this only happens to troubled kids, I get so angry," she said. "Brett was a good kid who for some reason made a bad decision that night. He paid the ultimate price. If this can happen to my son, it can happen to anyone."

"We as a community need to come together to find a solution to this problem," added Flexer. "I don't want any families to go through what my family has gone through."

Brunch attendees also heard from Brandon Danz, special adviser to the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. Danz shared information about the state's county block grants, which allow counties more flexibility over spending within human services programs, which include drug and alcohol treatment services. The block grant program is currently in a trial period and may be offered to all counties soon. Carbon County is not in the block grant program at this time.

While Danz noted that the block grant was meant to soften the blow and allow counties to spend tax dollars more efficiently after a 10 percent budget cut to these programs, audience members questioned whether this would allow county programs to fully function on 90 percent of their allocation. Mroczka noted that his department has a block grant for inpatient drug and alcohol treatment, and needed to stop accepting patients in January when the program ran out of funds.

The final speaker for the event was the Honorable Gary Tennis, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol. He said that when he was a prosecutor, 80 percent of criminal trials were related to drug and alcohol addiction.

"We could cut crimes by two-thirds," he said, adding that for every $1 invested in drug and alcohol prevention or treatment, local communities save $7 in tax spending.

"Drug addiction exists in one out of four families in our country. It's an invisible giant, ravaging our communities," said Tennis. "We need to stop talking about how angry we are at these people for getting addicted and start looking for solutions. Let's stop hiding this issue. Let's start calling this what it is, that it is a widespread problem that needs to be addressed."

Tennis also noted that with prescription drugs becoming more likely to be abused, it is "no longer acceptable" to keep leftover pain medication in the home. Many young adults and adults who abuse pain medications get them from parents and grandparents without their knowledge; he is currently advocating for permanent drop-off locations that will allow area residents to dispose of their leftover medications safely.

Because water filtration systems do not remove prescription drugs, it is not appropriate to flush unwanted medications.

When audience members began discussing costs for drug treatment and funding cuts, Tennis also added that most health insurance companies must cover 30 days of inpatient drug treatment with a doctor's orders. He encouraged audience members with a friend or family member facing drug addiction to learn more about their health coverage when attempting to get treatment.