Former Addict Turned Pennsylvania Mayor Seeks Drug War Reform

By Paul Gaita 07/06/16

The Blossburg mayor battled drug addiction and alcoholism throughout his teenage years and now uses his platform to address the drug epidemic.

Former Addict Turned Pennsylvania Mayor Seeks Drug War Reform
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According to a 2015 study, Pennsylvania leads the United States in the number of drug overdose deaths among young adult men, with about 30 deaths per 100,000 individuals. Many of those deaths occur outside of major cities like Philadelphia, where the rate of death is three times lower than those in Bucks or Gloucester counties. Statistics like those are of great concern to Shane Nickerson, who has served as mayor of Blossburg, a town of about 1,500 residents, since 2013.

As a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Nickerson understands full well the struggle that residents of communities like his own wage every day for sobriety. He also knows that Northcentral Pennsylvania, the rural region that includes Blossburg, experienced the largest percentage-wise growth in hospitalizations for heroin overdoses (509%) in the state between 2000 and 2014, according to the Bradford Era. That’s why Nickerson has made the national drug epidemic a leading concern with his office, and has addressed it through a variety of actions throughout his term as mayor, including the push for a drug court in Tioga County.

Nickerson battled alcohol, marijuana and cocaine in his teenaged years before completing rehab and returning to Blossburg to run a successful roofing company. His desire to help his community in the face of a growing drug problem spurred his interest in running for mayor. With the support of his wife, Blossburg councilwoman Jill Nickerson, he ran for the position in 2013 and won 80% of the vote. Since then, he has held roundtable discussions on Pennsylvania’s drug issues and spoken at numerous public hearings on the subject.

Nickerson has even directly counseled addicts taken into custody by Blossburg police and given them options like treatment instead of facing charges. To that end, he is actively advocating a drug court in Tioga County to provide alternatives for addicts—an idea that he believes is ready for widespread acceptance in a primarily conservative region.

“Addiction is a disease and we’ve got to do something different,” he said. “[A drug court] could have happened 10 years ago, but nobody had the nerve to do it. It should have happened ten years ago.” Nickerson cited the drug court in Potter County, a rural and traditionally conservative area where a near-constant flow of drug-related crimes fills the court calendar.

“They're saying things I've been saying (and other people) have been saying for decades,” said Nickerson. He’s hopeful that the current environment will turn his plan from proposal to fact in the near future. “I’m encouraged,” he shared. “I think we’re at the beginning of something really big. I know people who were locked up for forever because of this [drug problem].”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.