Prosecutions Rising in Drug Overdose Deaths

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The indictments of three companions of a man who died of a heroin overdose in the Cincinnati area, including his ex-wife, are part of a nationwide push to investigate overdose deaths as homicides and seek tough prison sentences against drug dealers and others deemed responsible. It’s an aggressive tactic law-enforcement officials say they’re using in a desperate attempt to stanch the rising tide of overdose deaths, the Wall Street Journal reports. Fueled by a flood of heroin laced with fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids, the overdose death rate in Cincinnati’s 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.

A new 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. “The deaths—that’s why,” says Commander Thomas Fallon, who leads the task force, of the prosecution push. “Even in the cocaine and crack days, people didn’t die like this.” At least 86 people nationwide received federal prison sentences last year for distributing drugs resulting in death or serious injury, up 16 percent from 2012, says the U.S. Sentencing Commission. An analysis of news reports found 1,200 mentions nationally of drug-death prosecutions in 2016, three times the number in 2011, says the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports decriminalizing drug use. Before the current overdose crisis, the typical police response to a drug death was “ ‘OK, I gotta call the medical examiner, notify next of kin, make sure there’s no foul play and dispose of the needle. And then I’m outta here,’ ” says Benjamin Agati of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office. “It’s just another person who’s died from addiction and that’s it.”

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