Friday, February 6, 2015

Public Enemy Number One: Heroin

Last year, the United States tackled a deadly epidemic that made its way into the nation’s borders; however, the nation looked past a preexisting threat that has killed more people in the past few years than ever before in history.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the deadly drug, heroin, has killed more people recently than in previous years; 43,000 people per year, to be exact.  To give this number more meaning, the father of a young man who died of an overdose found that this number is fourteen times the number of people who died in the September 11th attacks, and it means that in a twenty-month period, heroin will claim more lives than the Vietnam War did in its entirety.  National figures show an increase in deaths by thirty-nine percent, and over 2,000 more lives claimed in 2013 than in 2012.  The drug has also claimed more lives than violent crimes and automobile accidents.  Moreover, this is the fifteenth year in a row that the number of heroin-related deaths has risen.

The problem is not confined to a particular part of the country, as states stretching up and down the east coast from Florida to Vermont are seeing an increase in heroin use and fatalities resulting therefrom.  Local and federal authorities say that the drug, due to its availability and purity, is “having stunningly lethal consequences,” especially because it is cheaper than prescription opiates.  Heroin abuse often begins with an addiction to prescription drugs; however, since Federal law enforcement has enforced tighter rules on the prescription and use of such drugs, their prices went up on the black market, making heroin the alternative drug of choice. 

Recognizing heroin to be a state and local problem affecting communities all around the country, former Attorney General Eric Holder urged police and other first responders to carry the drug naloxone; a drug that helps resuscitate victims from what could be an overdose resulting in death.  This measure alone would not bring down the increase in heroin-related fatalities because the naloxone serves no purpose if help never reaches the victim.  As a result, last year twenty states, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, passed “Good Samaritan” laws giving drug users some criminal immunity if they seek help for a friend who has overdosed.  The friend would have to stay until law enforcement arrives and then identity themselves. However, the law seeks to encourage people to get help and eliminate the fear of being incriminated.

The state of Maryland actively addressed the severity of the problem, as Maryland’s own Baltimore County was labeled “heroin capital of the United States.”  In 2013, Maryland lawmakers passed legislation allowing first responders and law enforcement to carry and administer naloxone to victims of overdose, a measure Attorney General Holder endorsed.  U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Rob Rosenstein, reported a double in the state’s heroin deaths in the past three years.  While the state’s murder rate has fallen, heroin deaths are at record highs.  We had 10 people on average, die of heroin doses every week in Maryland last year,” said Rosenstein.  State’s Attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland, John McCarthy echoed, saying “[t]he numbers that we are looking at are terrifying.”  Both prosecutors reported that heroin-related deaths jumped eighty-eight percent from 2011 to 2013, and another forty-six percent in the first half of 2014 alone.  In December 2014, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan responded by declaring a “state of emergency” in what he called a “war on heroin.”  Governor Hogan called the increased usage of heroin “an epidemic.”  In May 2014, the state enacted its own Good Samaritan law in an effort to fight this war. 

Virginia took a similar approach.  In addition to expanding the use of naloxone, Virginia Attorney General Herring and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe urged lawmakers to increase criminal penalties for drug dealers who supply lethal doses of the drug and offer limited criminal immunity to those who seek help for others who have overdosed.  Virginia Attorney General Herring explained that this “safe reporting” law “would encourage [people] to pick up the phone and call for help … [t]he goal of [the] bill is to save lives.”  Herring added that the 2013 death of a Fairfax County teen “underscored the need for the measure.”  The teen’s body was found in a wooded area after she was given a fatal dose of heroin; out of distress, the man she was with never called for help.  Virginia’s  “limited” immunity means that a drug user who calls law enforcement to get help for an overdosing friend can only cite the Good Samaritan law as a defense if prosecuted; however, the law would not grant immunity.  Among these actions, Governor McAuliffe also endorsed a bill that would make delivering a fatal dose of any illegal drug a second-degree murder offense; this charge is currently a federal offense only, and so making it a state-level offense would encourage more state monitoring and participation in tackling the problem. 

The Good Samaritan laws have received some skepticism from those who oppose the thought of letting a drug user go free simply because he/she called for help; however, friends and families of the victims argue otherwise.  In 2012, twenty-seven year old Andrew Woodmansee died of a heroin overdose after the dealer, also the other user, tried reviving Andrew by slapping him and yelling his name.  When these attempts failed, he drove Andrew to a secluded area and left him to die; Andrew’s body was discovered two days later.  Andrew’s father spoke out, saying that if a Good Samaritan law had been available at the time, the law “could have saved Andrew’s life.”  Similarly, twenty-four year old Greg Hume was also left to die after an overdose when he was left in a parked car outside of a hospital emergency exit; no one honked, or called 911 and by the time hospital authorities discovered the body an hour later, it was too late.  Hume’s father, Dave Hume, made a compelling argument in response to critics who say the law will let the drug dealers and users off the hook.   He stated:

“It seems common sense if someone is lying there dying to call 911 … for committing a good act, you shouldn’t get in trouble.” In response to the law’s criticism he adds, “[p]eople worry the bad guys, the drug dealers, are going to get away … [d]efine drug dealer—is it three or four young people who get together and purchase opiates?  Arresting those three or four young people isn’t going to stop anything; they’re not drug dealers—they’re people who have the disease of addiction.  It’s a medical problem and they need to be treated. Dealers are never going to be where an overdose occurs—they don’t want to get arrested, not only would they lose their profit but they’d lose their business.”

The law does seem to let drug users go free, and this may trouble many prosecutors who will not be able to bring charges against someone who was also in possession of, and using the deadly drug.  However, laws like the one endorsed in Virginia that would make it a second-degree murder offense to supply a deadly dose of heroin would allow prosecutors to pursue the key players more vigorously.  In conclusion, practitioners must remember the goals of punishment and ask themselves if any of those goals are furthered by pressing criminal charges against someone with a disease beyond their control who simply tried calling for help in an emergency.

*Note:  This article was inspired by the death of my oldest friend, and my other half, whose life was recently taken away because of this disease.  I, along with many other families and friends hope that these Good Samaritan laws prevent the loss of another young life.  Rest in Heaven Jonathan Flores 07/04/1990- 12/07/2014.

By Mahira Khan
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Irina Slutsky via Flickr

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