NBC: Heroin Surge turned Wilkes-Barre, PA into “the Most Unhappy Place in America”

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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Two hours north of Philadelphia and thirty miles south of Scranton, lies the “most unhappy place in America” — Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania.

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Russell Bufalino (Photo Credit; Times Tribune)

Wilkes-Barre was once a vibrant coal region city, nestled in the belly of Appalachia. Now they have been hit harder than a nuclear bomb with the ongoing opioid crisis. The city has always had a crime problem — most notably the hold of the mafia by notable mob leader Russell Bufalino in the late-20th century and then the serial-killer, Hugo Selenski, who became a national news icon after escaping the Luzerne County prison in the early 2000s.

This surge of crime is nothing like anything this city has seen before though as people are overdosing in droves and families within the community are being torn apart.

William Lisman, the Luzerne County Coroner, stands at the county morgue in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. NBC News

One of the most recent cases saw a 27-year-old woman from one of the mountain towns surrounding Wilkes-Barre found dead in her family home. In Hazleton, several days later, a 34-year-old man was found dead in a sleeping bag. Both cases had the county’s coroner, William Lisman, concluding the same cause but due to circumstances, he couldn’t confirm the obvious: an opioid overdose. So Lisman had to rule cause of death “undetermined”.

Regarding the logistics of the overdose, he said, “When a person dies of an overdose, the lungs fill with fluid and the victims essentially drown in their own fluids.”

A third-generation Wilkes-Barre resident, Lisman’s family operated a funeral home that buried several generations of city residents, and he reached out to colleagues in other counties to see if they had any answers.

They had one: fentanyl, a powerful painkiller the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says “is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin, packs 50 to 100 times more punch than morphine, and can be manufactured easily by illegal drug mills”.

“I started hearing about fentanyl and how drug dealers were cutting heroin with it,” he said.

Lisman said he had the toxicological tests “tweaked” to detect the presence of fentanyl and that, “after that, the drug overdoses here skyrocketed.”

Facing a crisis, Lisman called the local newspaper, The Times Leader, last May and sounded the alarm.

“I knew I wasn’t going to stop people from using, but I wanted people to know what they were using…This stuff can kill them.”

The Horrific Math

In the last year, there were 137 fatal drug overdoses. The majority of them were the result of heroin laced with fentanyl.

That death rate is four times higher than New York City.

According to Lisman, a major component of this drug was is that the city of 41,000 is just a two hour drive from Philadelphia and from New York City. Interstates 80 and 81 converge just south of the city.

A packet of heroin that sells for $5 in the Bronx can reach double that in Wilkes-Barre. Then, if it’s cut with fentanyl, the profit quadruples. In that case, not only the price rises but also the death rates to its users.

One major reason the opioid crisis has hit hard is due to the rise in illegal immigration. With the influx of illegals comes gang activity — so thrives in the heroin trade.

“The Most Unhappy Place in America”

Patty and Chris Emmett lost their son, Christopher, to an accidental opiate overdose. NBC News

Two years ago, a pair of researchers concluded that the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metro area was the most unhappy place in the U.S.

They reached their conclusion after wading through the results of telephone polls conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2005 and 2009, including answers to the question, “How satisfied are you with your life?”

Lisman, whose four grown children did not return to the Wilkes-Barre area after finishing college, agreed that they live in a depressed community. That feeling of a crippling depression has really spread throughout the entire Luzerne county and surrounding counties.

As the situation gets worse, people really aren’t shying away from the drugs, but using it as their escape from reality. As county coroner Lisman stated, “We have a lot of people who are unhappy with life…People using drugs are looking to escape. It is just a symptom of the way people here feel and have felt for years.”

That feeling has been a result of an economy that transitioned from boom town to boarded up store fronts, factories closed and then the coal industry was decimated.

The Town Retains its Pride and Fights to Live Another Day

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Wilkes Barre, PA

In Public Square, new restaurants like Franklin’s have opened to serve the young professionals who have moved downtown to live in loft apartments in some of the vintage buildings. Other chain stores are regaining tread such as the Department store Boscov’s. To market students from nearby King’s College, a brand new Chick-fil-A is located on the first floor of a dorm on the square.

As a member of this community, I can say we may have been knocked down but we’re in the process of getting back up and fighting this outbreak head-on.

If you know someone who is suffering from the opioid abuse, Call the Hotline 1-800-662-HELP.

(h/t NBC Special Report)

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  1. Yes we have our share of social problems as do many older northeast cities however we are blessed with an abundance of excellent universities ,we are proud of our history that our ancestors worked hard to provide a better life for there children .We live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country with fantastic recreational opportunities.we are proud of our AAA sports teams ,social and cultural opportunities,a beautiful international airport,rails to trails hiking biking Etc The largest natural lake in Pennsylvania.Hunting and fishing including the Fabulous Lehigh river.we have invested millions in our health care systems ,universities,industrial parks and our unique downtowns.i could go on and on.This is the most unfair reporting trying to make our area unique to this horrible problem .Our area has survived many difficult situations and we will fight this horrible problem with all our resources.This is still the Valley with a Heart.


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