Many law enforcement officials in local jurisdictions across the state are reporting a surge in heroin overdoses and deaths.
But statewide and nationwide, reliable data on the heroin problem is difficult to come by.
Look at the Pennsylvania heroin death statistics from 1999 through 2010 (incredibly, the most recent available from the Centers for Disease Control) and it's hard discerning a trend. Here are the numbers.
If that were a graph, it would look like a roller coaster.
Are we in the midst of a heroin epidemic or not?
Or do these deaths just ebb and flow sporadically?
The statistics highlight a significant problem in efforts to counter heroin use.
According to a recent Digital First Media report, statistics provided by the CDC are problematic -- a situation the CDC acknowledges.
The CDC reported 3,036 people died from heroin overdoses in the U.S. in 2010 -- but the agency agrees that number is likely at least 25 percent too low.
The problem is inconsistency in reporting from various jurisdictions.
In some jurisdictions, death certificates don't indicate which drug was responsible for the fatal overdose.
In some jurisdictions, toxicology tests were not conducted during autopsies. And even then, it can be difficult to determine that heroin was the cause of death.
Couple all that with computer problems at the CDC (the 2011 figures won't be released until this week) and lawmakers and law enforcers are flying blind.
Well, not exactly blind. The people on the front lines know what's happening in their communities.
The police know that they're seeing more heroin and more overdoses.
The people on the front lines know that we're in the midst of a heroin epidemic -- and they're marshaling forces. Some state district attorneys have begun charging dealers with crimes related to heroin overdoses.
That's good -- and there's no need to wait for the CDC stats to catch up to do any of that.
Still, good data leads to good public policy -- and to good decisions about where to spend limited public resources.
We need to get a clear statistical handle on the heroin problem nationally.