Attorney General Josh Shapiro

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left) gestures during an April 2017 interview at The Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown. David Wade, the AG's director of policy and planning, is looking on in the background.

The commonwealth’s new attorney general feels there needs to be a clear difference in how the legal system handles non-violent addicts and hardened drug dealers.

Users battling dependency should get treatment, but those who traffic narcotics should be severely punished, according to Josh Shapiro, who met with The Tribune-Democrat’s editorial board on Wednesday.

“We have got to understand the difference in our society between someone who is non-violent and addicted to drugs and someone who is dealing drugs,” Shapiro said. 

“I am merciless when it comes to the drug dealers, but compassionate when it comes to those who are suffering from addiction.”

Since January, the AG’s office has executed some high-profile busts, including filing charges against 49 people accused of selling or possessing heroin and other illegal drugs in Blair County, breaking up a New York City-York-Altoona pipeline, and arresting individuals in the Johnstown area for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.

Beyond apprehending suspected dealers, Shapiro wants to look at medical professionals who illegally sell pain medications. He has asked legislators to budget funding for 16 new agents who would deal with drug diversion.

Shapiro is also concerned about pharmaceutical companies that might overproduce opioids.

“Suffice to say, we’re taking this fight to the street corners of Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said.

“You have to ask yourself, OK, well why are they overproducing it, how are they marketing it, is it an unfair trade practice?” Shapiro said. “So these are all things that we are looking in to. I’m very aggressively looking at the pharmaceutical company side of it. I can’t comment, right now at this point, much further on that, but I can tell you that has to be a key piece of this.”

Shapiro also discussed the gun violence in places such as Johnstown that is often linked to the drug trade.

“Pennsylvanians have a right to bear arms, and Pennsylvanians have a right not to get shot walking down the street in their community,” the attorney general said.

He would like to see the commonwealth develop a database for guns used in crimes and replicate Philadelphia’s Gun Violence Task Force in other communities, including possibly Cambria County where there have been four fatal shootings so far in 2017.

“I have made it a point to say I want to expand the gun violence task force to other communities throughout Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said. “Here’s what I need from the Legislature – we need funding.”

The attorney general pointed to preemptive ways to prevent gun violence and drug use by saying, “I’m a firm believer that if government spent more money on anti-poverty issues, on hunger issues, on job opportunities, I would see fewer people coming across my desk. I’d much rather our state government spend more money on that than more money on prisons – more money on education than money on locking people up.” 

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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