By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa., Sept 23 (Reuters) - Young people in rural Pennsylvania can buy heroin more easily than a bottle of wine and getting high with the opiate can be cheaper than buying a six pack of beer, according to an investigative report released on Tuesday.
Overdose deaths have climbed steadily since 1990, when drug deaths in rural areas of the state were at one per 100,000 population. As of 2011, that figure stood at 13 deaths per 100,000, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania said in the report.
"Heroin is cheaper and easier for young people to obtain than alcohol," said State Senator Gene Yaw, the Republican chairman of the center, a joint legislative state agency.
Pennsylvania is not alone in its heroin problem. In rural Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin said his state was experiencing a "full-blown heroin crisis," while the overdose rate in New York City has surged as well, especially in the wealthiest neighborhoods.
In Pennsylvania, Yaw said a small packet of heroin costs between $5 and $10 and delivers a high lasting four to five hours.
The report, based on evidence submitted in hearings across the state this summer, listed Cambria County in central Pennsylvania as having the highest overdose death rate outside of Philadelphia, 22.6 deaths per 100,000 population. That is equal to Philadelphia's drug death rate, the report said.
Yaw suggested Cambria County's drug death rate was not caused by any special factors, but state Representative Bryan Barbin, a Democrat, was not so sure.
Barbin said Johnstown is easily accessible from heroin distribution centers like Baltimore. Dealing heroin is an attractive career option for those with few economic prospects, he said, especially those with drug crime records.
The report called for a number of legislative actions, including making it easier to prosecute dealers whose customers die of overdoses, and a "Good Samaritan" law assuring that people who seek help for overdose victims will not face criminal charges.
Putting more addicts in jail will not solve the problem, the report said.
State Representative Richard Marabito, a Democrat, said Pennsylvania has about 760,000 residents with addiction problems, but that only about 52,000 are receiving treatment. Only one in eight addicts can be helped with existing state resources, the report said. (Writing By Frank McGurty)