As most people know, communities have been confronted for the last several years with the widespread use and abuse of opioids. While problems related to illegal drugs are not new, the “opioid epidemic” has been in the headlines and commanded the attention of lawmakers at the state and federal levels. It has also spawned multi-million-dollar lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers and retailers.
Initially these problems arose from the over prescribing of a variety of pain medications with familiar names like vicodin, codeine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. These substances, while having some legitimate medical uses, are all highly addictive opioids commonly abused. When prescriptions end or run out, users seek them through any means, including doctor shopping, forging prescriptions or simply buying them on the street; a lucrative enterprise for sellers taking advantage of addicts. Recognizing the rising crisis, legislators and regulators tightened controls over prescribing and tracking these narcotics. The tightening of controls helped reduce the abuse of prescription opioids. Unfortunately, these controls on access to “legal” narcotics often led to users turning to the use of heroin, acquired on the street, some laced with fentanyl for a stronger effect. Heroin abuse ballooned. The frequency of heroin overdoses, many fatal, became well-known to the public and to the user community.
Fortunately, perhaps because of the well-known deadly dangers associated with heroin, we have seen the use of heroin decline a bit. Unfortunately, in its place, methamphetamine and cocaine have regained their prominence on the street.
Problems created by the illicit drug culture and the money involved, top to bottom, are complicated and difficult to solve. Within the criminal justice system, several issues can be identified.
Certainly, there are those users who become addicted and find themselves in a cycle of problems associated with that addiction. This group is made up of folks who generally need and want treatment and want to break the cycle. They often have no criminal history, aren’t committing other crimes and don’t pose a risk to public safety. This is the group commonly being talked about by those who say “too many non-violent drug offenders are in prison.” But the reality is, these addicted users very rarely go to prison. Laws already in place, divert these offenders from incarceration. Generally, everyone in this group is given multiple opportunities for treatment.
However, a second issue has to do with those who are involved in the drug culture, may have addiction issues, but also may pose a risk to public safety because they become immersed and commonly develop criminal records, sometimes committing more serious crimes like burglary or robbery. They often show up in the system with lower-level felony drug charges like possession or trafficking in small amounts, but their history cannot and should not be ignored. Some see these offenders as part of the “mass incarceration” problem and advocate they too should not be incarcerated. Often, they may serve time on non-violent drug offenses, creating the impression the system has sent another “low-level” offender to prison. However, a closer look on a case by case basis commonly reveals a lengthy criminal history and courts must consider personal responsibility and public safety when imposing a prison term.
Then there is the ongoing big issue of how to deal with those who sell drugs on an ongoing basis and become part of the “drug trafficking culture.” Most people agree these offenders should be dealt with more harshly, but the trend in the legislature at both the state and federal levels is to continue watering down the significance of these drug offenses. These offenders pose serious risks to public safety. When an individual commits serious drug trafficking offenses, personal accountability and public safety should carry the day.
(Morris Murray is Defiance County’s prosecuting attorney.)