Fault Lines
21 June 2017

Heroin Hysteria Punctures Criminal Justice Reform

February 21, 2017 (Fault Lines)– It’s a tough year for smack, H, Horse, Heroin, or whatever you want to call the highly addictive opiate responsible for taking the lives of so many. There’s so much hysteria around the drug that legislators in several states, formerly advocates of criminal justice reform, are drafting legislation that would lengthen sentences for heroin dealers or users.

Before diving into the murky waters of these new heroin bills, it’s important to understand how we got to this point. The rise in heroin usage is arguably the net effect of doctors prescribing Oxycontin, Oxycodone, or other opioid pain medication in substantial amounts. Physicians were assured by Big Pharma these new formulations wouldn’t be addictive and would serve their patients with chronic pain better than older medications.

The truth came to light quickly and harshly. People flocked to Oxys, Roxys, and Vikes because they were a “legal high” that took some of the edge off life. People saw a way to make a profit off the sale of such medication, and “pain clinics,” another term for “pill mills,” popped up overnight. If you wanted to get a prescription for Roxycodone, all you had to do was visit the local clinic, pay for an MRI, get an unscrupulous physician ready to make a quick buck to sign off on your need for opioid pain pills, and you were in the clear.

Doctors got penalized heavily for prescribing these drugs. Various branches of the government limited the supply doctors could prescribe. Once the drugs were scheduled, it became necessary in many physician’s offices to get a month’s supply with a visit to the office and presentation of valid ID. Even pharmacists would look down on you if you tried to get your pain pills refilled at more than one pharmacy.

Opiates are a drug that creates a tolerance in the user. When someone takes a certain amount of opioid pain medication to ease horrendous back pain, for example, the initial dosage won’t always keep the pain at bay. It will eventually increase, either through the self-medication of the patient or through doctor-sanctioned treatment by increasing dosages. At some point, there’s a breaking moment where the pain pills aren’t enough.

This is where heroin steps in. As an opiate, it fills an addict’s “need” for a fix because it contains chemicals that affect the same receptors in the brain the formerly legal pain pills would. People who used to deal in heroin regularly, then dropped off the radar, realized there was a new need for their services and responded accordingly. The end result was legislators that used to be on board with shorter sentences for criminals began drafting legislation that penalizes heroin and fentanyl dealers more than ever before.

Two Kentucky Senators who formerly advocated for comprehensive sentencing reform filed a bill substantially increasing the penalties for “trafficking” in “any quantity of heroin [or] Fentanyl*.” This new legislation, if enacted, will make first-time offenders guilty of a Class C Felony in the Bluegrass state.

“Any quantity” is a large target. If you possess a legally prescribed amount of Fentanyl when a cop stops you, there’s a good chance you become a felon. When asked about the impact of this new proposed legislation, the Senate President acknowledged it could cost millions, but the fight against the dreaded opiates was worth every penny.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said that the bill carries an unbudgeted cost “in the tens of millions of dollars” that the Bevin administration will have to deal with. “But it is worthwhile to send a message – it’s time to for this to stop at whatever level for whatever drug it may be,” Stivers said. “And I am not keeping my fingerprints off this issue.”

In case Kentucky readers are wondering, those “tens of millions of dollars” to jail your fellow citizens suffering from the scourge of heroin addiction will come out of your tax dollars. The fines, fees, and penalties will increase to line the coffers of the Kentucky legislature. And you, the average citizen, will be stuck with the knowledge that if a doctor prescribes you Fentanyl, you might be a felon.

Kentucky isn’t the only state in Dixie with a heroin freakout problem. Back in 2015, Alabama enacted legislation that would reduce prison overcrowding and require non-violent, low-level drug and property offenders go somewhere other than the local jail. Now, the state boasting the most SEC championships of any college football program is looking to add bragging rights on heroin and fentanyl trafficking to its history.

If you are caught in Alabama with 28 grams of Fentanyl or heroin, under proposed legislation you face the possibility of life without parole. This, according to Senator Cam Ward, is completely okay because heroin and Fentanyl are devil drugs and we need to punish the pushers.

Ward…has worked to reduce prison overcrowding. He said he doesn’t think the bill will result in big increases in incarceration, but could put some people behind bars who truly belong there.

“Even if it did increase the numbers on incarceration, that’s okay, because this is something we need to crack down on,” Ward said.

 Yes, a senator who worked hard to reduce prison overcrowding is perfectly fine with those shrinking incarceration numbers blowing back up because heroin and Fentanyl are bad and we need to punish people who use and sell them. It doesn’t have to make sense, because there is no sense to this absurdist legacy of legislation. People see a problem and think tougher laws to deter “criminal” behavior will truly stop the problem, instead of creating new issues states have to deal with.

Here’s a tip for the legislators once formerly concerned about criminal justice reform now freaking out over heroin problems. Focus your energy on treatment and help for addicts rather than locking them in prison for a dangerous habit they never intended to acquire. Taking that route doesn’t make you any less tough on crime during the next election cycle. It just makes you compassionate to your suffering constituency.

*Fentanyl is a legal opioid continually conflated with heroin.

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