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Pa. drug laws drive harm reduction into shadows

Plus, Pa. has made a fortune arming Ukraine.

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The logo of PA Post, a free daily newsletter delivering the top news from across Pennsylvania every day.

A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

Wednesday, November 29, 2023
In today's edition: safer supplies, money problems, arming Ukraine, labor laws, police suit, water hack, and congressional delegates in Antarctica.
Decades into Pennsylvania's opioid epidemic, it remains illegal to provide clean needles to drug users here, outside of select locales. 

As a result, harm reductionists in most of the state do this work in the shadows, risking arrest to prevent blood-borne infections with free stockpiles of alcohol wipes, tourniquets, and sterile syringes.

Kim Botteicher is one of them and shares her supplies out of the basement of a former Catholic church in Bolivar, Westmoreland County — a place with millions of dollars in opioid lawsuit settlement money to spend.

Pennsylvania expects to receive more than $1.6 billion in opioid settlement funds total, but the state’s ban makes it significantly harder for the money to directly support expanding syringe services in many places.

“Are they going to quit overnight because we ask them to? Nope,” Botteicher said of the people her program helps. “So let’s help them stay well until we can get them to that point.” The ban is rarely enforced but suppressive.

Read Spotlight PA and WESA's report: Opioid settlement money is supposed to expand syringe services. Pa. law stands in the way.

THE CONTEXT: Three Pennsylvania counties — Cambria, Crawford, and Luzerne — were flagged in a national assessment of counties potentially vulnerable to the rapid spread of HIV, if introduced, and new or continuing high rates of hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs. 

In Harrisburg, state Rep. Jim Struzzi (R., Indiana) is sponsoring legislation that would legalize syringe services statewide. Struzzi hasn’t always supported this approach, but he says since his brother died from a drug overdose in 2014, he’s come to better understand the nature of addiction.

His bill is currently sitting in the state House Judiciary Committee. Democratic Chair Tim Briggs of Montgomery County supports syringe services legalization but opposes efforts to pass a statewide ban on supervised consumption sites. Briggs told Spotlight PA and WESA he worried some lawmakers in Harrisburg would try to combine the two proposals through amendments.

“Over the summer, yeah, that was a real concern,” Briggs said, adding that he plans to put syringes services legislation on the committee’s agenda in the coming weeks or months and believes a hearing could grow support.

“I think we’re as close or closer to the Middle Michigan Capitol than we are to Pennsylvania's. People laugh and they’ll say, 'Do you represent Canada?'”

State Rep. Pat Harkins (D., Erie) who logged $154,000 in taxpayer-funded mileage reimbursements since 2018, significantly more than colleagues from the same region; one critic called the amount impossible to justify
Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
It's #GivingTuesday Week, one of the most important of the entire year to ensure our unique investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania can continue. That's why all gifts to Spotlight PA this week will be DOUBLED.

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Fall at Westmoreland County's Derry Ridge, via Doug W. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on IG, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

An aerial shot of fall foliage across hills and mountains with a handful of houses scattered in between.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.BUDGET SEASON: The new calendar year means a new fiscal year for Pennsylvania municipalities, and some are at inflection points. PennLive (paywall) reports it's "raise taxes and cut police, or raise taxes more" in Newville, Cumberland County; Westmoreland County officials are weighing a plan that would drain county reserves; and officials in Volant, Lawrence County, are refusing to show local media the details of a budget plan that includes a large, 57% property tax hike.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.ARMS DEALS: Pennsylvania has received more money than any other state as the federal government spends billions to arm Ukraine. Reuters reports: While three of the eight Republican members of Congress from Pennsylvania have been voting against funding to help stop Russia's invasion, the Keystone State has received $2.364 billion to build arms and ammunition at factories like this one in Scranton.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.
CHILD LABOR: The owner of McDonald's locations in Clarion, Brookville, Punxsutawney, and St. Marys has been fined $26,000 for having children as young as 14 working its stores at impermissible times, including during school hours. Pennsylvania has seen a dramatic rise in child labor violations. A legislative attempt to strengthen punishments could have unintended consequences, experts warn.
Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.CASE DISMISSED: A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against State College and several of its police over the fatal 2019 shooting of Osaze Osagie, a Black man who was killed by officers serving a mental health warrant. The judge said there was no clear violation but acknowledged that the officers initially concealing their identity at Osagie's door may have heightened the risk, per PennLive (paywall).

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.CYBERATTACK: CNN reports federal officials are investigating a purported cyberattack on Aliquippa's water authority by an Iranian-linked group. The water authority says the group took control of one water station but water service wasn't impacted. A cybersecurity regulation for public U.S. water systems was rescinded in October following a challenge from GOP attorneys general and industry groups.
Support Spotlight PA's vital investigative journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.

INFAMOUS CRIME: William Stankewicz, the man imprisoned for a 2001 machete attack that left 14 injured — including 11 kindergartners — at an elementary school near York, has died in prison. Stankewicz was 78 and more than two decades into a prison sentence of up to 264 years.

PRISON BOOKS: Pennsylvania prisons have banned more than 250 books over the past decade, a smaller number than seen in states like Florida and Texas, Axios reports. Prison Ramen is the most banned book in the country. Advocates say prison censorship is the most pervasive kind.

HOLIDAY TRAVEL: U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R., Pa.) spent Thanksgiving in Antarctica with three other lawmakers. Travel companion and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.) called it a fact-finding trip.

SNOW STREAK: Philly hasn’t seen an inch of snow since Jan. 29, 2022 (that's 668 days). The streak is still alive after Tuesday's flurries there. The second-longest streak, 661 days, ended Dec. 15, 1973.

SILVER LININGS: Speaking of Philly ... actor Bradley Cooper is on the record saying he'd rather have an Eagles Super Bowl win than another Oscar, via Philly Mag. This Philly-themed Tokyo bar is likely in full agreement.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 5:30 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Wackiness

Congrats to our daily winners: Mike B., Lynne E., Vicki U., Richard A., Bob C., Barbara F., Jane R., Stacy S., Jon W., Don H., Elaine C., Stanley J., Kim C., John P., Vanessa J., Marie B., William Z., Craig E., Alan B., Tom M., Wendy A., Susan N.-Z., Kimberly D., Ada M., and Jeffrey F.
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