Articles Posted in Heroin

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police-224426__180The U.S. Attorney recently announced that seven Baltimore City police officers have been indicted on numerous felony charges, and the fallout has already extended beyond the cops’ alleged criminal acts. A federal grand jury returned the indictment back in February, but it was sealed until agents had the opportunity to execute search and arrest warrants. All seven have been arrested and remain in custody after a judge denied bail pending trial. While bail is typically granted for a defendant with no prior criminal record that is not facing a capital offense or violent life felony, prosecutors made the argument that these defendants, who served on the gun trace task force together, were especially dangerous to the public and possessed unique training that would make them flight risks. Defense lawyers for the accused countered by arguing that the charges were blown out of proportion, but the federal magistrate judge was not convinced and stated that no conditions of bail or supervised release would be enough to protect the public.

The charges returned by the grand jury were numerous, and included offenses such as wire fraud, robbery, conspiracy and extortion by a state or government employee. These charges were bundled in one racketeering indictment, which alleged the defendants stole money and drugs from civilians they detained or arrested and submitted fraudulent overtime reports. One of the defendants also allegedly posed as federal prosecutor in order to get more information out of a victim, which the officers subsequently burglarized and stole $20,000 from. Six of the defendants were also charged in a separate seven-count indictment for drug charges including conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, and officer is charged with distribution of heroin resulting in death.

All seven of the accused officers face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering and conspiracy charges. The six defendants in the drug indictment face even more exposure as antiquated federal drug laws still provide harsher punishments for those that sell drugs than for those that rob, steal from or assault others. Three defendants face conspiracy to distribute more than a kilogram of heroin, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. The other three are charged with selling slightly less heroin, but still face up to 40 years with a 5-year mandatory minimum. One of the soon to be ex cops faces an additional 20 years in jail for distributing heroin that results in death.

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Lawmakers are set to debate at least two new bills in the coming weeks aimed at combating skyrocketing narcotic overdose numbers. The first bill, which was introduced by delegates from Harford County and Anne Arundel County, would add a separate crime to the books targeting distributors of heroin and fentanyl. If House Bill 612 becomes law it would punish those found guilty of supplying the heroin or fentanyl that results in a deadly overdose. As it stands now the law would carry a 30-year maximum prison sentence, which could be imposed in addition to a sentence for drug distribution. There is an immunity clause within the statute that would apply to anyone who provides assistance for a person who is experiencing a medical emergency after using these two dangerous drugs. Any information given to medical providers by a person that supplied the heroin or fentanyl would be inadmissible, which in theory would serve to dissuade those from failing to render aid to an overdose victim out of fear of prosecution.

This new law could be effective provided that the law enforcement and state and local health officials get the word out about its existence. It may cause some drug dealers to think twice about selling heroin or fentanyl, which would be a win for lawmakers. As a practical matter though, the law probably would not have much of an effect in the courtroom. A person who is arrested for supplying illegal drugs that result in a deadly overdose already faces a 20-year maximum penalty for distribution of narcotics. And a judge would certainly take into account the fact that someone died as a result of the defendant’s conduct, making a lengthy prison sentence likely even without the new law. In addition, a state’s attorney could elect to charge the dealer with manslaughter and or reckless endangerment, which is a general crime that is defined as engaging in conduct that causes a substantial risk of death or serious injury to another. Manslaughter carries a 10-year maximum penalty while reckless endangerment carries 5 years, and these sentences could be consecutive to any sentence for drug distribution. Some jurisdictions such as Worcester County have already tried and convicted drug dealers for manslaughter, but House Bill 612 would achieve the same purpose while presenting less of a challenge to prosecutors.

In the coming weeks we may also see a law hit the State House floor in Annapolis that would limit narcotics prescriptions to a seven-day supply. There would definitely be exceptions for patients experiencing severe symptoms from certain terminal and long-term illnesses, and there may be other exceptions as well. This proposal, which came from the governor’s office, aims to limit the excess amount of prescription narcotics on the streets. Patients suffering from chronic pain are able to easily secure prescriptions for hundreds of narcotic pills per month, and many illegally sell some of their supply in order to fund their addiction. Others simply have a hard time keeping track of their medications and become victims to thefts by burglars, home workers, houseguests and even family members. Maryland would not be the first state to pass a law restricting opioid prescriptions, as at least seven other states already have strict laws on their books. The Blog will continue to follow the progress of these two proposals, and we may post a follow up article in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

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police-850054_960_720-300x212Baltimore Police made fewer arrests in 2016 than in 2015 and homicide numbers were slightly lower, but think twice before assuming the city was a safer place last year. The reality is that despite a 7 percent decrease in total arrests and 26 fewer murders, Baltimore was actually more dangerous in 2016 than any year in recent memory. Last year saw a staggering number of shootings in a city with a steadily declining population. All told the police department reported 936 shootings at year’s end, a number that came in just 60 shy of New York City’s number of shootings. The catch being that NYC has 14 times the population of Baltimore.

About 1 out of every three shootings ended up being deadly, which kept the homicide number above 300 for the second year in a row and placed Baltimore among the most deadly cities in America for gun violence in 2015. Another statistic to ponder is the 39 percent clearance (case closed by arrest) rate for Baltimore murders. The 39 percent clearance rate is one of the lowest in the country, but thankfully is up from 31 percent in 2015. 86 percent of people shot last year ended up dying from their injuries. This number appears to be higher than most other urban areas in the country due to the popularity of larger caliber firearms, and the frightening trend of Baltimore shooters using more bullets and firing their weapons from closer range. Over half of the deadly shootings in 2016 occurred on city streets and public places such as parks, which has devastating consequences for many innocent bystanders. Just over 10 percent of homicide victims were killed in their cars and a similar number were in their homes. Most victims were males between the ages of 18 and 24.

In addition to shootings skyrocketing, drug overdoses are approaching historic levels. This is a trend throughout most of Maryland, but Baltimore is the epicenter. Full year-end statistics for 2016 drug overdoses are not available yet, but as of October 1 there were 481 overdoses compared to 291 for the first 9 months of 2015. Heroin is responsible for a large percentage of these deadly overdoses, though the infusion of fentanyl on the streets may be playing an increased role as well. It is estimated that over 20,000 people in Baltimore use heroin, which is over 3 percent of the population. Other areas within Maryland that saw large increases in drug overdoses include Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Harford County and Howard County. As we mentioned in a previous post, health and law enforcement officials in less populated areas such as Bel Air face the same concerns as those in the city. More heroin users and an influx of powerful new drugs such as fentanyl will continue to rock the smaller communities and urban areas alike. The Blog will continue to follow the crime and drug overdose statistics from 2016 as new data is made public, and we may post a follow up article in the near future so stay tuned.

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Heroin2Officials reported five heroin overdose deaths during this past holiday week in Harford County, where the overdose rate has hit a staggering one case per week. Like other counties in Maryland, Harford County is on pace to double its number of overdoses from last year. But as state health officials and law enforcement scramble to combat the heroin epidemic there is a new threat looming that could end up being exponentially more deadly.

In previous posts we have mentioned the increased street presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and an estimated 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl became popular in the form of skin patches to treat severe localized pain. It didn’t take long for users to figure out that if the drug was removed from the patches it could be injected for a much stronger high, and dealers later learned that the relatively cheap fentanyl could be mixed with their heroin. Infusing small amounts of fentanyl allowed the dealers to maintain the strength of their product even when using a larger portion of cheap cutting agents. Mixing fentanyl with heroin creates a powerful and unpredictable effect on the user, and it has been the cause of hundreds of overdose deaths when mixed or injected on its own. Government officials are now beginning to take measures to combat fentanyl use, but just as they catch up on fentanyl there is a new synthetic opioid hitting the streets that is far more powerful.

In September the DEA issued a warning to the public and law enforcement about a relatively new substance named carfentanil, which was designed to tranquilize elephants and other large animals. Carfentanil showed its ugly face on the streets for the first time just months ago, and now officials are worried that its arrival in Maryland could spike overdose deaths to unthinkable levels. The concern about this particular synthetic opioid is its potency, which is estimated to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil has already contributed to overdose deaths in Vancouver, and it has been discovered on U.S. streets as well. Law enforcement suspects that the drug fell into the hands of dealers by way of China, where it can allegedly be ordered online in a powder form. The powder is so potent that even handling it without gloves or a mask could trigger an overdose. Another frightening reality is that carfentanil overdoses could be deadly even if treated the anti-overdose drug naloxone. It some cases it could take as much as six times the normal dosage of naloxone to reverse a carfentanil overdose, an amount that may not be readily available to first responders and police officers.

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annapolis-237078_960_720This past week the Governor’s Office in Annapolis announced that $3 million in state funds would be dedicated toward fighting the heroin epidemic in Maryland. Nearly a third of that money will provide funding for newly assigned heroin coordinators in law enforcement agencies across all regions of the state. The other $2 million plus will continue to fund the Safe Streets Initiative, a criminal offender based information sharing system that debuted in Anne Arundel County in 2008, and later expanded to Salisbury in 2010. There are now nine jurisdictions taking part in the initiative, which will receive tax dollars specifically dedicated toward the treatment and recovery of drug offenders. Five of the safe streets jurisdictions will acquire funds to hire peer recovery specialists.

The increased funding and the hiring of treatment specialists fall in line with the recommendations of the Heroin & Opioid Emergency Task Force, an initiative championed by Governor Larry Hogan. The governor has taken a hardline stance on the heroin epidemic in Maryland since being elected, and one of his first moves was to sign an executive order establishing the task force back in January of 2015. The eleven-member task force released 33 recommendations this past December, and now state officials are mobilizing to make these recommendations reality. In addition to expanding treatment and recovery options, the funds will also support the designation of the Baltimore-Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area as the epicenter of the war on heroin. All drug related intelligence gathered by law enforcement around the state will flow through the metro area headquarters where it will be indexed and analyzed. In theory this will facilitate the tracking and eventual arrest of suspected drug traffickers and street level dealers. It remains to be seen whether the money would be better spend by simply hiring more qualified police officers, and encouraging them to communicate with other departments.

The governor’s war on heroin certainly creates buzz and headlines, and gives the impression that the state is at least trying to curb the heroin epidemic. But there are still far more headlines about drug overdoses and drug busts. Just days ago a man died from an apparent drug overdose at a Worcester County hospital after being taken into custody by Ocean City police. He was arrested on CDS possession with intent to distribute charges after police located 1,500 packets of heroin in his vehicle. Headlines like these have become so commonplace that it seems like the state’s war on heroin is going in the wrong direction. And as the federal government can attest to, the war on drugs is simply a never ending battle, and adding more cops and making more arrests is arguably not the correct path to victory. It could be even be argued that arresting drug dealers just keeps the price of heroin high, thus making it more attractive for others to start dealing.

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inside-ambulance-1319281_960_720The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently released its report on drug and alcohol related intoxication deaths for 2015, and the data shows multiple alarming trends. Last year was the deadliest year on record with regard to state drug and alcohol overdoses. A total of 1,259 people succumbed to high levels of intoxication in 2015, which represents a 20 percent increase from 2014 and the fifth year in a row that the number has increased. One of the most alarming trends is the high number of fentanyl related deaths that are quickly becoming a major concern across the country. Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic that became popular for treating severe localized pain through adhesive patches that are placed directly on the skin. These patches are slow acting and provide long-lasting pain relief without an intense narcotic effect. Recreational drug users have little use for the patches as intended, but have found numerous ways to extract the narcotic and combine it with other drugs such as heroin. Illicit use of fentanyl produces an intense high that can be many times more powerful than heroin, and often times more deadly. From 2007 to 2012 there were about 30 fentanyl related overdoses a year in Maryland, but the last three years have seen a dramatic increase. In 2013 and 2014 there were 58 and 186, and last year there were a shocking 340 fentanyl related deaths in the state.

Politicians and other public officials have placed more emphasis than ever on combating the heroin epidemic, and the data supports their cause. Heroin related overdose deaths once again rose dramatically in 2015, with 748 cases reported statewide. This is more than double the average number of overdoses from 2007 to 2012. In contrast, the number of prescription opioid overdose deaths from drugs such as oxycodone has remained relatively the same since 2007, especially when factoring in population increases. The same can be said for cocaine related deaths, which were actually lower last year than in 2007. Benzodiazepine overdoses from drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium) have risen steadily over the last 8 years, but the 91 deaths in 2015 pale in comparison to heroin and fentanyl.

Readers of the DHMH report will notice that marijuana is nowhere to be seen in any of the overdose data, yet alcohol is high up on the list of killers. Alcohol is so ingrained in our country’s culture that it continually receives a pass despite its deadly consequences. There were 309 alcohol related overdose deaths last year in Maryland, and thousands more injuries, incidents of violence, and auto accidents that were caused by alcohol intoxication. Alcohol is available on every street corner yet it’s taking our state years to formulate highly restrictive regulations on where one can grow and sell medical marijuana. While this is a bit of a tangent, it continues to baffle the Blog.

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syringe-866550_960_720This past November Worcester County Police responded to a residence in Berlin to assist EMS with an apparent drug overdose. Medical professionals were unable to revive the 50 year-old man, but for the police officers their work was just beginning. Within hours officers were able to locate a suspect who had supplied the lethal heroin to the deceased, and fully blown investigation ensued. Officers first discovered the suspect after searching the recent call list of the deceased’s cell phone, and actually had a conversation with he suspect that same night. According to police records a 26 year-old man from Berlin first admitted to driving the deceased to Delaware to purchase the heroin, but further investigation revealed that the young Eastern Shore man actually delivered the drugs to the home of the deceased, and witnessed him overdose. This information was uncovered though an executed search warrant of the suspect’s phone that revealed text message conversations with the deceased, and the suspect was arrested shortly thereafter on charges of narcotics distribution and possession not marijuana.

While distribution of narcotics is a serious felony with a 20-year maximum jail sentence, prosecutors were not satisfied that this charge fully accounted for the defendant’s conduct.   The State’s Attorney sought additional charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment to incorporate criminal responsibility for the defendant in the death of the 50 year-old man. A grand jury agreed and returned an indictment for these two counts plus the original two drug counts. No plea agreement was reached, and the defendant gave up his right to a jury trial in favor of bench trial the Snow Hill Circuit Court. It didn’t take long for the judge to find the defendant guilty on all counts, and now he awaits sentencing in July. In addition to the 20-year max for distribution, the defendant also faces a 10-year sentence for manslaughter, 5 years for reckless endangerment and 4 years for possession. The defendant has multiple prior convictions for assault, which the judge will surely take into account at the sentencing hearing.

Charging an alleged drug dealer for manslaughter when a buyer overdoses is not a new concept nationwide or in Maryland, but that is not to say it is a common practice.   Some states have specific statutes that enhance drug crimes when a buyer is injured or dies, but it is still rare to see a manslaughter conviction in a drug case. In this case though, police and prosecutors had ample evidence (most provided by the defendant himself) that the defendant directly supplied the heroin to the deceased and that he remained with the deceased while he took the deadly dose. To sustain a conviction for manslaughter in Maryland the state must prove the defendant committed an unlawful act that killed someone during the course of that act. The cell phone evidence gathered by police combined with the statements all but sealed the defendant’s fate.

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concertina-wire-1031773_960_720Lawmakers in both houses and from both sides of the aisle are currently working on one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform bills in recent memory. Senate Bill 1005, known at the Justice Reinvestment Act, is an 84-page behemoth of a bill that aims to revamp multiple areas of the current criminal justice system. The act’s two major areas of focus are reducing the state prison population, and then establishing specific avenues for allocating the savings. Maryland taxpayers are currently picking up a $1.3 billion yearly corrections tab, which is astonishingly high as a result of roughly 20,000 people being incarcerated in state and local jail facilities at any given time. For years lawmakers have wrestled with the conundrum of reducing the number of inmates without reducing the safety of our streets, and now it appears as if a reasonable solution is in the works.

Lawmakers want to reduce the prison population by up to 14 percent over the next ten years, thus saving almost $250 million per year. Since 14% of criminals are not simply going to take the next 10 years off, the only way to reduce the prison population is to release some offenders and to not incarcerate others in the first place. Maryland has not devised a revolutionary and unique system of selecting which offenders to release, but rather it is joining the federal government and numerous other states with the goal of reforming criminal drug laws. The bottom line is that lawmakers are finally realizing that society is not best served by spending $100,000+ per year to incarcerate a non-violent drug offender. We can lower maximum jail sentences and eliminate minimum mandatory prison sentences in non-violent drug cases without putting the public in harms way, and we can save millions in the process.

The Justice Reinvestment Act touches on three main ways to accomplish this, including lowering the maximum punishment for possession of narcotics such as heroin and oxycodone and stimulants such as cocaine, from four years to one year for a first offense. Second, the act and other legislation that is already in the works will also effectively do away with ineffective minimum mandatory prison sentences for certain drug felonies such as possession with intent to deliver, manufacturing, and distribution. Repeat drug felony offenders currently face parole ineligible 10-year mandatory sentences, while repeat offenders of violent crimes such as assault and robbery face no increased penalties. The contrast is simply illogical. Finally the act will place limitations on the penalties for certain violations of probation, which especially in the case of drug charges are responsible for hundreds of lengthy prison sentences each year. Reducing penalties for technical violations, or violations that do not involve additional criminal law violations, are the main focus of the act. There is language that would keep litigation of technical violations out of court, and in the alternative would allow probation officers to levy their own punishments. These changes will probably be met with some pushback, and may invoke constitutional law challenges, but it is hard to argue that technical violations are often blown out of proportion in court.

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drug-1070943__340While decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in Maryland was a major victory for drug reform, some state lawmakers are far from satisfied. The last year has been productive, with medical marijuana perhaps less than a year away from going live, and marijuana paraphernalia being decriminalized. But arcane drug laws have done little to reduce the availability and abuse of controlled substances, and incarcerations for non-violent drug offenses continues to cost state and local governments millions of taxpayer dollars. In an effort to take drug reform to new heights one state delegate has introduced a package of bills, which focuses on prevention and treatment instead of punishment. This common sense approach acknowledges that eradication of controlled substance use is not a realistic goal, and as a result advocates expending government resources on mitigating the effects of inevitable drug use. As of now there are three bills that will hit the House floor this legislative season, with the perhaps the most controversial scheduled for a hearing in early March.

House Bill 1119 represents an unequivocal effort to decriminalize the simple possession of virtually all common street drugs. Simple possession, which is referred to as de minimis possession in the bill, is the same benchmark that was used to decriminalize marijuana. The legislature chose the arbitrary amount of ten grams as their benchmark for de minimis pot possession. This amount was likely a compromise between lawmakers searching for a line that could separate personal use with intent to distribute, but other than the fact that ten is a nice round number it makes absolutely no sense. Many marijuana users prefer to buy larger amounts at a time to minimize the number of purchases they need to make. It would hardly be out of the ordinary for a moderate user to buy an ounce (28 grams) or more at a time, and this amount would in no way indicate a desire to distribute for profit. Further, marijuana is rarely sold by ten-gram increments, especially not in America. Still though, setting the bar at ten grams is better than the alternative of initiating criminal charges for anyone possessing as little as one tiny bud.

The proposed house bill expands upon de minimis exception for marijuana to include benchmarks of two grams of cocaine, one gram of heroin, ten tablets of meth, .0015 grams of LSD or acid, and 1 gram of methadone / amphetamine. Possession of less than these amounts of each drug would not be a crime under Maryland law if the bill were to pass. These amounts are more realistic as indicative of personal use than the ten-gram cutoff for pot because they have not been watered down by endless debate and so called compromise. The bill would eliminate a large burden on the criminal justice system of prosecuting drug users who need help rather than jail time, but sadly it has little chance of becoming law in the next couple of years. Maryland has not shown a willingness to be ultra progressive with respect to drug policy and it is highly unlikely that Annapolis lawmakers would be the first to decriminalize cocaine and heroin possession. On the other hand, this bill could generate enough attention to start the discussion, which at this point is the best we can hope for this year.

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drugs-908533_960_720The Baltimore Police recently announced the completion of a fairly large heroin bust, which led to two arrests and the recovery of drugs, cash, and a firearm. This particular bust was not the product of a long-term police investigation, but rather it was based on a tip from a concerned Greenspring Avenue neighbor in the northwest part of the city. Metro Crime Stoppers received the tip and relayed it over to the police for further investigation. Officers staked out the home of the alleged drug dealer, and then followed him as he drove away. A short time later cops made a traffic stop of the suspect’s vehicle, and conveniently had the K-9 unit on standby ready to conduct a drug sniff. After the dog hit a positive on the car the man was taken into custody while the police sought a search warrant for his home. The warrant was signed and upon executing the search police found 4 kilograms of heroin valued at upwards of $400,000. State and local police officers typically use the street value of the drugs in their reports and press releases, which is based on the optimum profitability achieved by selling small quantities. City police officers also seized $80,000 cash and a stolen handgun from out of state. There is no final word on whether the dealer will be charged in Baltimore City, or whether the feds will take on the prosecution.

This recent drug bust comes at an interesting time for crime fighting in Baltimore City. The police department has consistently stated a desire to focus their efforts on combatting violent crimes such as robbery, assault, and murder. The violent crime rates in the city are alarmingly high and have shown little signs of improving. On the other hand there is no chance the police would fail to act on a large-scale drug tip. These busts generally create positive news headlines for the department, while at the same time taking well funded and often well armed criminals off the street.

Anonymous tips do not always pan out and are sometimes an invitation for the police to violate a person’s rights, but it seems that this particular case was handled by the book. It is always suspicious when cops are performing surveillance one minute and the next are conducting a traffic stop with a K-9 unit on hand. But these so called pretextual stops, where a driver is stopped for a minor (or made up) traffic violation for the sole purpose of advancing an unrelated criminal investigation, are legal under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. The only requirement is that the traffic stop be legitimate, which obviously gives police way too much leeway to see things like a suspected drug dealer “rolling through” a stop sign, making a right on a red arrow, or going 11 over the speed limit. But challenges to the traffic stop will usually fall on deaf ears on the bench, and as long as cops wait for a search warrant the evidence will usually be held admissible. Police are well aware that suspects are most vulnerable when they are on the road due to numerous automobile exceptions to search and seizure rights. This is why many of the largest drug busts begin as a simple traffic stop.