Prosecutors get tough against heroin dealers, suppliers
TOMS RIVER, N.J.
With the number of heroin overdoses skyrocketing nationwide, a growing number of law enforcement agencies are dusting off strict, rarely used drug laws, changing investigatory techniques and relying on technology to prosecute drug dealers for causing overdose deaths.
The aggressive change in tactics comes as more people turn to heroin because of crackdowns on powerful prescription opiate painkillers that make them more expensive and inaccessible. The popular prescription drug OxyContin has also been reformulated to make it difficult to crush and snort, making it less desirable on the street, law enforcement officials said.
Nationwide, the number of people who said they have used heroin in the past year skyrocketed by 66 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The number of people who died of overdoses and had heroin present in their system jumped 55 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rather than going after lower-level users of heroin, prosecutors are looking to take out dealers and members of the supply chain by connecting them and the drugs they sold to overdose deaths and charging them with laws that carry stiff penalties.
“We’re going to be ruthless,” said prosecutor Joseph Coronato of Ocean County, N.J., where 75 overdose deaths have occurred this year. “We’re looking for long-term prison sentences.”
Coronato and other New Jersey prosecutors are employing the state’s little-used “strict liability for drug death” statute, a first-degree crime that holds dealers and producers responsible for a user’s death and has a 20-year maximum sentence.