East Baton Rouge Parish broke its record of heroin-related deaths this year, with two weeks remaining for the possibility of even more people dying from overdoses in 2015, Coroner Beau Clark said Monday.
The Coroner’s Office has identified 38 people who have died from heroin overdoses this year, about an 8.5 percent increase from Baton Rouge’s previous record of 35 heroin deaths in 2013. Clark said he will push this spring for the Louisiana Legislature to stiffen penalties for heroin dealers.
“Anyone who sells heroin should go to jail forever,” Clark said.
The Legislature already passed a bill in 2014 that increased the maximum prison sentence for second-time heroin dealers to 99 years. First-time dealers can be imprisoned up to 50 years.
Some legislators and community members opposed the law, saying it meant people convicted of selling heroin could stay in jail for longer than some killers or rapists. Instead, they questioned whether the state should invest more in treatment. The idea of stiffening penalties for drug crimes also comes at a time when many criminal justice advocates are pushing to reduce prison populations in Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Clark said heroin dealers are different from other kinds of people who sell drugs, with their product too often killing the user.
“A heroin dealer is a violent offender,” Clark said. “Their weapon may not be a gun or a knife.”
The victims of this year’s heroin death toll range in age from their teens to their 60s. Clark said the drug has affected all races, though most deaths have been among white males.
The toxicology results for the 38th confirmed heroin death — a 27-year-old — just came back Monday morning, Clark said.
One of the biggest unintentional causes of the heroin-use increase is the state’s prescription monitoring program. The program has made it more difficult for addicts to receive opiate prescriptions from their doctors, which causes them to turn to the streets for opiates.
Clark said many of those who eventually turn to street heroin were once users of physician-prescribed opiates, unable to kick the habit after their prescriptions ran out.
On the streets, heroin is abundant and cheap.
Baton Rouge’s biggest spike in heroin-related deaths came between 2012 and 2013, when the number shot up from five deaths in 2012 to 35 deaths in 2013. The number dipped to 28 deaths last year before breaking the record this year.
Rhonda Irving, who is the founder of a clean syringe and outreach program called Be Safe Baton Rouge, said in an interview Monday that she has noticed an uptick in the past few years of heroin users who come to her. Irving’s organization provides clean syringes, tourniquets and other resources in hopes of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among drug users.
She said she has seen fewer cocaine users as the demand for heroin grows.
Irving said jailing heroin dealers — who she said are oftentimes users themselves — is not the solution to stopping drug-related deaths. “The jails don’t have the capacity to imprison all the drug users, the heroin users,” she said.
Irving said she would rather see law enforcement and lawmakers work together to enact new solutions to fighting the heroin problem.
On the prevention side, Clark has teamed up with Capital Area Human Services District. They’ve developed campaigns that warn of heroin’s deadliness and side effects.
“We don’t want people to get to that point where they’re overdosing,” said Vivian Gettys, the prevention division director for Capital Area Human Services.
Gettys said her organization does not take a position on the policy side of heroin penalties. She said they are more focused on easing demand for the drug and ensuring that users know they can get help.
Irving noted that sending addicts to jail or to rehab is no guarantee that they will permanently change. She said many people become clean in rehab or in jail but return to her for syringes shortly after they are released.
“Many times what happens is there’s someone in rehab, they’ve stopped using for a while and then they go back to it,” Gettys said. “That’s when you can get a really dangerous overdose that can lead to death.”
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R- Baton Rouge, was the lead author on the 2014 bill. He said Monday that he plans to get together with Clark, local district attorneys and criminal defense representatives before deciding what kind of legislation to pursue in the spring.
Claitor’s bill in 2014 was originally intended to set a 99-year maximum prison sentence for first-time heroin dealers as well, but he could not garner the support for that version.
“The hard part is separating the dealers from the users,” Claitor said on Monday. “The users, quite frankly, need help. But somebody who’s merely dealing heroin for a profit, I don’t have much sympathy for them.”