December 18, 2017

THEY NEED WIDER POWERS! Prosecutors Treat Opioid Overdoses as Homicides, Snagging Friends, Relatives.

Police ​are increasingly investigating opioid overdoses as homicides and prosecuting addicts who procure drugs for others. Heroin user Fred Rebmann was recently sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Video: Jake Nicol/WSJ; Photo Illustration: Heather Seidel/WSJ

Fueled by a flood of heroin laced with fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids, the overdose death rate in Hamilton County more than tripled between 2006 and 2016 to 50 per 100,000 people, or four times as many as those killed in traffic accidents. Nationally, some 64,000 Americans died from overdoses last year, up 86% from 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A newly created heroin task force in Hamilton County has investigated hundreds of deaths in the past two years, resulting in a dozen involuntary manslaughter indictments in state court and 13 federal indictments for distribution of controlled substances resulting in death.

But in courtrooms around the country, prosecutors are also sweeping up low-level dealers who are addicts trying to support their habit, as well as friends and family members of overdose victims who bought or shared drugs with the deceased. Some critics of the prosecution tactic say these users need treatment, not harsh prison sentences.

That doesn’t look very much like justice.