Researchers, Pennsylvania State Police collaborate on countering opioid epidemic

A woman reviews statistics related to drug overdoses in Pennsylvania

Ongoing research at the Penn State Justice Center for Research is attempting to identify and understand opioid distribution networks and ways to disrupt them.

Credit: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ongoing research at the Penn State Justice Center for Research is attempting to identify and understand opioid distribution networks and ways to disrupt them.

That research is more important than ever, as opioid-related deaths in Pennsylvania have steadily increased over the last 20 years. A report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that between 1990 and 2011, drug overdose rates rose 470 percent, from 2.7 to 15.4 per 100,000 ( Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health show that rate rose another 45 percent, to 22.3 per 100,000 by 2014 (

Researchers at the Justice Center, located in the College of the Liberal Arts, are exploring multiple options to combat the increasing rates of drug use. One current project is looking to identify distribution networks for illegal and prescription painkillers (opioids) using data from both the Pennsylvania State Police and individual communities, while another project will investigate ways to disrupt the flow of opioids through targeted police action, public outreach, and community partnerships.

Glenn Sterner, a postdoctoral scholar in the Justice Center, is actively involved with both of these projects. Sterner, who received his doctorate in rural sociology from Penn State in 2016, became part of the Justice Center after encountering the impact of opioid use in rural Pennsylvania as part of his dissertation work. 

“During my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time out in rural communities,” Sterner said. “My dissertation work was focused on the social networks of community organizing. That process allowed me to talk to incredible individuals who had a positive impact on their communities. In [talking to them], what really touched me was hearing the stories of these people’s lives who have been negatively affected [by the opioid epidemic].”

In his ongoing work at the Justice Center, Sterner uses his background in social networks (a term that he uses to describe connections between people, places and things, rather than social media like Facebook) and network analysis to provide a new perspective to studying drug use and distribution. He notes that while there are some previous studies of opiate distribution networks, they are outdated and refer primarily to the distribution of illegal drugs like heroin. Consequently, Sterner and his colleagues — Shannon Monnat, Penn State assistant professor of rural sociology, demography, and sociology; Ashton Verdery, Penn State assistant professor of sociology and demography; Gary Zajac, managing director of the Justice Center for Research; and, Pete Forster, associate dean for online and professional education in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology — hope to update people’s understanding of the distribution networks while also tracing how prescription painkillers make their way into rural communities.

Of course, you cannot just waltz into a town and ask the first person you see who sells the best heroin, Sterner notes. Instead, the research team has partnered with the Pennsylvania State Police and will use a combination of police data and information gathered from town hall meetings and focus groups, which will be conducted in conjunction with the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. The goal is to combine these sources of information to provide a richer picture of the current drug distribution networks in Pennsylvania for both illegal and prescription opiates.

Sterner along with Jennifer Gibbs and Jonathan Lee, both assistant professors of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg, are also collaborating with the Pennsylvania State Police on a project intended to actively disrupt current drug networks. The project will take a three-pronged approach that includes the implementation of incident response teams devoted to targeting drug-related activity, increased public outreach, and partnerships with addiction and abuse services within local communities.

Sterner stressed the importance of taking such a multi-faceted approach to disrupting drug networks and use. “We know that this is not going to be solved by healthcare alone, and we are not going to solve it by simply arresting drug dealers and drug users,” he said. “It’s going to take a systematic effort that involves the criminal justice system, health care, and treatment organizations, and it’s going to [require] us to understand this problem from all angles. That’s really what we are trying to do here.”

The Pennsylvania State Police and researchers at the Justice Center hope that the project’s comprehensive approach will disrupt current opioid use and access in Pennsylvania more effectively.

For more information about the Justice Center’s work combating the opioid epidemic, contact Sterner at [email protected] or 814-863-7564. Additional information is also available at the Justice Center website at