My niece, Lodi Seastrom, died from a heroin overdose on May 22, 2007, at the age of 25. I remember taking my two daughters, then 9 and 11, to her memorial service at Bond's Funeral Home. Before that, I had served on the board of Drug Free Marion County for three years. There, I learned how quickly drugs like cocaine, heroin, and Methamphetamine can alter a person’s brain chemistry and cause a physical and mental addiction. I remember warning my daughters that trying drugs even one time can put you in situation where you can no longer control what happens to you and the addiction will spiral out of control.
As community leaders and policy makers, we should be asking ourselves what do we do with our family members who have made that first mistake of trying a dangerous drug, not knowing how dangerous it is or how quickly they will lose control. Because lives are at stake, we must be careful in our response.
Many people suggest taking drugs is a choice. Every action a person takes is based on a choice, but that choice is heavily influenced by a person’s altered brain chemistry when these powerful poisons are involved. I have represented people accused of crime for more than thirty years, and I have seen many trapped in a substance abuse disorder. It no longer looks like much of a choice when a person steals from his own family or is no longer willing to take care of her own babies.
The most common response to the drug crisis has been to treat it as a law enforcement issue. We know drugs are dangerous, so we outlaw them, and then we lock up anyone associated with drugs. This approach has long ago been determined to be costly and ineffective. A 1997 study by the Rand Corporation concluded that
Mandatory minimum sentences are not justifiable on the basis of cost-effectiveness at reducing cocaine consumption, cocaine expenditures, or drug-related crime. Mandatory minimums reduce cocaine consumption less per million taxpayer dollars spent than does spending the same amount on enforcement under the previous sentencing regime. And either type of incarceration approach reduces consumption less than does putting heavy users through treatment programs, per million dollars spent. Similar results are obtained if the objective is to reduce spending on cocaine or cocaine-related crime. A principal reason for these findings is the high cost of incarceration.
Caulkins, Jonathan P., C. Peter Rydell, William Schwabe, and James Chiesa, Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers' Money?. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997, available at https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR827.html.
The law enforcement approach has not reduced the problem. According to an October 30, 2018, report, “more than 1,700 Hoosiers died from a drug overdose, an all-time high and a 75 percent increase since 2011.” Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, Assessing Indiana’s Opioid Misuse: A 2018 Update on the State’s Opioid Crisis, available at https://www.rmff.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Opioid_Executive-Summary_FINAL_web.pdf. Brown County is suffering from a drug overdose epidemic. There were four overdoses in October of 2018. See Four Overdoses Reported in the Past Month, Brown County Democrat, Oct. 30, 2018, available at http://www.bcdemocrat.com/2018/10/30/three_overdoses_reported_in_the_past_month/?fbclid=IwAR2MJWZfBvViMJdq5s55so9dFuVQJFjP17eHscHA4StafhdwLL-nPqLYVvo.
The Fairbanks report recommends a comprehensive treatment system that includes medication-assisted treatment. It supports evidence-based prevention programs in our schools. It pushes for harm-reduction efforts such as Naloxone use, syringe exchanges and safe disposal of unused prescription drugs.
A prosecutor should recognize that there are powerful forces behind our opioid epidemic. Drug companies have marketed these poisons under the guise of appropriate medical treatment, and doctors have been encouraged to overprescribe. Some doctors have set up “pill mills” and engage in outright fraud to validate insurance eligibility to pay for expensive prescription drugs. Once the patient is hooked and can no longer afford the prescription drugs, cheap, illegal street heroin is often the next choice. For a good description of these forces, I recommend the book, Dreamland, The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones.
As a candidate for prosecutor, I am asking what efforts a prosecutor can make to attack this problem. One is recommended in the Fairbanks report, which is to change the laws to allow bystanders to call 911 without fear of prosecution when they witness an overdose. The bystander might be using the drug himself or be in possession of illegal drug paraphernalia, and fear of prosecution is leading to overdose deaths.
A prosecutor has complete discretion in what charges to bring. He can choose not to charge someone with a crime who has called 911 to save a life. He can set up pre-charge diversion programs that offer treatment to an addict. He can set up screening tools to evaluate every person arrested to see whether addiction is causing the criminal activity and forward those arrested to appropriate treatment programs. He can push for establishment of an effective drug court program.
When making charging decisions, a prosecutor can decide which charges should be subject to pretrial arrest. The defendant who is arrested for small amounts of marijuana or for drug paraphernalia may lose his job if he is jailed while awaiting trial. Instead of jail, those defendants can be ordered to come to court on a summons rather than an arrest. If they are able to keep their jobs, they may avoid one more setback that pushes them into the despair that encourages more drug use.
I recommend a two-pronged prosecution policy to attack the drug epidemic. There should be two separate responses to two separate targets. The peddlers of these poisons and who are profiting from other people’s misery should be aggressively prosecuted and thrown in prison. These people have made a conscious choice. Those committing crimes who are addicted should be pushed toward treatment options rather than prisons. Providing treatment to those addicted recognizes that these powerful poisons have diminished their ability to make a free choice.
This approach will not just let addicts off the hook. Those addicts who have stolen from friends and family, who engage in frequent shoplifting to support their drug use, or worse yet, might hurt someone in their desperation, must be held accountable for that behavior. Those who are not willing to recognize the harm they are causing must be held in jail to keep the rest of us safe.
But for those, who, like the clients I have spoken to, hate who they have become and want to change, we should give them the tools they need to change. These poisons are powerful enough that they cannot do it without help.