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Identifying and Informing Strategies for Disrupting Drug Distribution Networks: An Application to Opiate Flows in Pennsylvania

This study focuses on six counties in PA identified by the Pennsylvania State Police as areas where large amounts of drug trafficking occurs along the interstate system, which passes through the counties. We analyze the distribution networks of heroin and illegal prescription opioids separately, based on data from Pennsylvania State Police arrest and seizure data to explore differences and similarities between the sources of these substances. Additionally, we explore the local distribution centers of heroin and illegal prescription opioids through focus groups in the highest overdose areas of the counties (which indicates a ready supply of the substances), compare these data to Pennsylvania State Police arrest and seizure locations to explore areas for increased law enforcement attention, and identify additional indicators associated with high and low opiate distribution neighborhoods. We also be provide information from the Pennsylvania State Police and local treatment organizations to focus group participants to report illegal activity and how to seek treatment for users. Through the innovative approach of combining both the extra-local and local supply analysis results, we will provide recommendations to law enforcement agencies on how to maximize the efficiency for disruption of the supply of opiates into our communities. Our results will be provided to the Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania state governmental agencies, US governmental agencies, law enforcement agencies across the US, the academic community, and local community organizations.

Project Team

  • Principal Investigators: Glenn Sterner, Post-Doctoral Scholar, Justice Center for Research, Department of Sociology and Criminology,; Ashton Verdery, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Demography, Department of Sociology and Criminology,
  • Co-Investigators: Shannon Monnat; Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology, Demography, and Sociology; Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education and The Population Research Institute;;  Pete Forster, Associate Dean for Online and Professional Education in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology,;Gary Zajac, faculty member in Criminology and Managing Director of the Justice Center for Research at Penn State,

      Research Questions

      1. What are the characteristics (e.g. hierarchical structure, number and strength of connections, clusters of distribution possibly associated with different organizations, susceptibility of distribution networks to disruption) of heroin and fentanyl distribution networks in PA?
      2. What are the characteristics (same as #1) of prescription opioid distribution networks in PA?
      3. How do the distribution networks of heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opiates compare?
      4. Do residents’ perceptions of the geographic locations of opiate distribution match arrest and intelligence gathering data?
      5. What are the differences in demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and major highway access between neighborhoods with high versus low opiate distribution?

        Project Details

        The purpose of this project is to partner with the PA State Police to identify and describe opiate distribution networks and discern ways to disrupt them in PA and eventually across the United States. Specifically, the goal of this research is to work within the topic area of Drug Intelligence and Community Surveillance, addressing the second drug priority: heroin and other opioids (including diverted prescription drugs).

        The research in this project emphasizes multiple crime reduction approaches. First, we will explore the epidemiology of opiates by examining differences in the structure of heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opiate distribution networks. We will also use community-based mapping and law enforcement arrest and seizure data to identify geographic hotspots of drug sales among 264 neighborhoods (census tracts) within six selected PA counties. This information will inform the development of policies and programs related to prevention and intervention of drug-related crime and the disruption of heroin, fentanyl, and diverted prescription opioid drug networks for law enforcement agencies. Such strategies will help to inform both PA and U.S. law enforcement agencies on how to disrupt the flow of opiates.

        We specifically emphasize small, rural communities, as well as urban communities, and we will examine whether and how opiates flow from urban to rural areas.

        Project Objectives

        1. Identify and document the structure of heroin and fentanyl distribution networks in PA.
        2. Identify and document the structure of diverted prescription opioid networks in PA.
        3. Analyze the structural similarities, differences, and connections between heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid distribution networks in PA.
        4. Develop and apply tools to record resident identified locations of local opiate distribution.
        5. Compare resident identified locations of local opiate distribution to arrest locations of opiate distribution.
        6. Describe the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods with high vs. low distribution (as measured by arrest records and respondent reporting).
        7. Provide recommendations for policing and arrest strategies for law enforcement for targeting heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid distribution networks to increase network disruption.
        8. Provide recommendations for improving intelligence gathering activities related to documenting opiate distribution networks.
        9. Create stronger community and law enforcement connections.

        10.  Disseminate information for opiate treatment and reporting of illicit activity at study sites.


          Although this study is limited to six counties in PA, the analyses and results from this study will have the ability to inform policy and practice across the Commonwealth and the United States. First, our innovative approach to data fusion will be of interest to law enforcement agencies to use as a model for addressing complex criminal justice issues. We are utilizing datasets from multiple units within the PA State Police to develop extra-local understandings of drug distributions. Similarly, we are utilizing community-based data gathering and existing data to gain clearer understandings of drug sales in neighborhoods. By tackling this issue from local and extra-local perspectives, we are able to provide recommendations for police enforcement policy and practice to ensure efforts are maximized to disrupt the distribution networks of opiates. Integration across inter-departmental agencies and across jurisdictions is a model that could be applied to the opiate epidemic and other criminal justice concerns. Second, by identifying the common characteristics of communities where significant distribution occurs, we can inform criminal justice agencies on potential areas for concentrating officer targeting. Third, the analyses of the structure of the supply chain of heroin and fentanyl networks and prescription opioid networks will provide key insight for targeting the flow of these substances. Law enforcement agencies will be able to better understand how to target these networks in a more effective and efficient manner.