Do Heroin, Do Time

Mar 27, 2014

LSP Commander Col. Mike Edmondson testifies on behalf of bill to impose mandatory jail time for heroin.
Credit Sue Lincoln

While state lawmakers will be considering moves toward decriminalizing marijuana later in this session, they’re heading the other direction when it comes to heroin. Law enforcement officials say that drug has become a lethal epidemic.

“It is so quick the brain just stops immediately. The needle cannot leave their arm,” Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore told members of the House Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday.

Moore was among the people testifying in support of a bill to set mandatory minimum sentences for heroin possession or distribution—2 years for possession, 10 years for distribution.

Louisiana Sheriffs Association president Mike Ranatza told lawmakers it’s time to send a message: “If you do heroin, you’re going to do time.”

Ranatza’s testimony included the history of heroin problems in Louisiana, going back to the 1960s when the legislature put in place the nation’s toughest laws against the drug—mandatory life sentences. Ranatza said that virtually eliminated heroin use in the state for over 30 years. However, in 2001 Louisiana—like many other states—lifted the harsh sentences, and recently the drug has made a dangerous comeback.

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux told committee members that heroin-related deaths in EBR went from five in 2012 to 55 in 2013. He also said there’s been a 5500-percent increase in the amount of heroin confiscated in the past two years.

Louisiana State Police Commander Col. Mike Edmondson says state police lab results show the heroin making its way into the state—and into the arms of addicts—is 31 percent pure—nearly twice the typical concentration. Edmondson says that’s what makes it lethal.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand says heroin is also a big problem in in the New Orleans area.

“It is now cheaper to buy illicit heroin on the streets than it is to buy oxycontin and oxycodone,” Normand said.

Officials believe laws cracking down on those prescription narcotics have driven addicts toward heroin.

Robert Toale with the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told lawmakers that mandatory jail time isn’t the answer, since it precludes sending addicts to rehab.

“We shouldn’t be making criminals of people that have gone from oxycontin to heroin,” Toale said. “Those people need help.”

Committee members didn’t buy that argument, unanimously agreeing to send the bill to the House floor.