14 Jul Louisiana OKs 99-Year Sentence for Heroin Dealers
Dealing with drug offenders is a challenging topic for politicians. On one side, there are a lot of people looking to liberalize the laws, arguing that harsh punishments for drug offenses are counter-productive, and have not worked—as part of the war on drugs—for over 40 years. On the other side, some argue that more severe punishments will serve as a deterrent, and that the opposite course of action would only exacerbate the problem. There isn’t an easy solution to this dilemma, but most will readily agree that the new approach favored by Louisiana legislators—a 99-year sentence for repeat heroin dealers—is excessive.
A Heroin Epidemic
In the East Baton Rouge parish, deaths from heroin increased almost sevenfold from 2012 to 2013, rising from five to 34. This is the issue legislators attempted to address, but much of the discussion centered on celebrity addiction cases, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman and Peaches Geldof. Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment with a needle in his arm and 70 bags of heroin in his home. Geldof died at age 25, leaving behind two children after having overdosed on heroin. These cases may not come from Louisiana, but they do illustrate the issues associated with heroin abuse. The rise in usage is in part attributed to crackdowns on prescription drug abuse, many of which are opioid medicines.
The New Laws: Punishing Repeat Heroin Dealers to the Extreme
Originally, Rep. Joseph Lopinto put forward House Bill 332, a more subdued piece of legislation calling for a doubling of penalties for heroin dealers from five years to 10. This wasn’t what he supported in the end though, and in a move that infuriated House Democrats, he instead backed the penalties proposed by Senate Bill 87, which called for a maximum sentence of 99 years for heroin dealers. This legislation was created by state Sen. Dan Claitor, and was debated by the House in mid-May. Lopinto’s change of mind resulted in some backlash, and as a compromise it was agreed that the harsher, 99-year sentence should apply only upon a second conviction. In the end, SB87 passed 54 to 33.
Criticism of the New Approach: Is Drug Dealing Worse Than Murder?
There are, quite expectedly, many critics of the new stringent punishments for heroin dealers. Although it’s just for second offenses, many have raised the issue that the sentence of 99 years is extreme in comparison to other laws. State Rep. Ted James pointed out that murderers and rapists will get shorter sentences than repeat heroin dealers under the new law. “You can kill someone in the state of Louisiana and be better off than dealing heroin? I have a serious problem with this bill,” he said.
The undeniable truth is that the vast majority of people would be compelled to argue that cold-blooded murder is worse than dealing heroin. For the crime to be equivalent in terms of damage done, the dealer would have to restrain the user and forcibly administer an overdose. It’s an insult to crime victims everywhere to say that a two-time heroin dealer is worse than even a one-time murderer or rapist.
The new law reinvigorates the “criminality vs. illness” debate frequently raised in connection with drug law. The argument goes that since drug users are often addicted, they should be offered help for their problem rather than punishment. However, when this line of reasoning was applied to the new bill, Lopinto had the fair retort: “We’re not dealing with possession. I’m not concerned with a drug distributor having an illness.” Many distributors will be addicted too, of course, but it isn’t the core issue for dealers in the same way it is for users.
However, most still don’t feel as though dealers deserve such a strong punishment, with state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith arguing, “It just bothers me that now just because of what they feel is a rise in heroin that we have to go to such stringent rules. That’s my major concern, and I’m not going to be able to support that.”
‘We Did a Pretty Good Thing Today’
For all of the understandable criticism of the new law, the accusations of draconian punishment and personal offense at an agreement being reneged on, Lopinto argued that the point was to reduce heroin abuse. He said, “We did a pretty good thing today.” Lopinto is likely basing this on the assumption that the failure of the “war on drugs” is not due to the inappropriate approach to the issue, but that the core “weapon” of jail time just isn’t a deadly enough deterrent. It must be said that the vast majority of experts in the field would wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment. And most citizens would question the wisdom of claiming that drug-dealing—no matter the substance—should be punished more extremely than the direct and purposeful taking of somebody’s life.
Lopinto may feel like he’s done a good thing, but when heroin deaths don’t decrease—as they most likely won’t—it’s going to be more and more difficult to defend this new rule. Already in the state, users unable to get prescription drugs due to stringent laws have graduated to heroin, so even if the stringent laws for heroin dealers are effective, what will the addicted users turn to next? It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be anything better.
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