Our Views: Heroin deaths in Louisiana still on the rise _lowres

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. In a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2015, drug overdoses in the U.S. rose again in 2014, driven by surges in deaths from heroin and powerful prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. Overall, overdose deaths in the U.S. surpassed 47,000 — up 7 percent from 2013. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

New Orleans and Baton Rouge continue to see a surge in heroin use, with fatal overdoses on the rise.

It’s an epidemic that is challenging law enforcement, even as the state Legislature has increased penalties for the drug’s use.

Heroin-related deaths in East Baton Rouge Parish have reached a record high this year, Coroner Beau Clark said. The coroner said 38 people have died from heroin overdoses so far this year, about an 8.5 percent increase from Baton Rouge’s previous record of 35 heroin deaths in 2013.

Clark says he will push this spring for the Louisiana Legislature to stiffen penalties for heroin dealers.

That would be on top of earlier changes in state law: Lawmakers passed a bill last year that increased the maximum prison sentence for second-time heroin dealers to 99 years. First-time dealers can be imprisoned up to 50 years.

Those are already stiff terms,raising the question of whether higher penalties can be more effective than the current policy.

In an interview with reporters and editors of The Advocate, the federal prosecutor for the greater New Orleans area stressed the coalitions of law enforcement agencies formed to deal with this new threat.

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s first two years in office coincided with the surge in heroin use, and he noted that it is a particularly lethal cocktail when combined with other drugs.

“The lower cost of heroin makes it a cheaper alternative to prescription drugs,” Polite said. Clark made the same point in Baton Rouge: Many of those who turn to street heroin were once users of physician-prescribed opiates and were unable to kick the habit after their prescriptions ran out.

The drug trade does not respect jurisdictional lines. Polite praised lawmen in southeastern Louisiana for banding together to trade intelligence and work on arrests when, for example, a user travels from the suburbs or elsewhere into New Orleans to buy heroin.

Whether stiffer penalties will work is a good discussion, but the author of the 2014 law increasing jail terms said he will meet with law enforcement and criminal defense attorneys to consider any future bills.

“The hard part is separating the dealers from the users,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, a former prosecutor. “The users, quite frankly, need help. But somebody who’s merely dealing heroin for a profit, I don’t have much sympathy for them.”

Nor does the public, we believe, but Claitor is right that there should be a thoughtful and informed discussion among the players in the criminal justice system about new steps.

In the meantime, in the trenches, police and deputies will be challenged by this rise in heroin deaths.