Articles Posted in Heroin

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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.

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pills-943764_640Maryland law enforcement’s war on heroin has reached new levels, as one county recently conducted highly questionable road checkpoints targeting the dangerous drug. The checkpoints were set up this past week on various thoroughfares in Harford County including Route 1, Route 24 and Route 40, which police classify as high volume drug trafficking routes. The trafficking designation is more a result of these roads being the major thoroughfares in and out of town and for the high volume of motorists they carry, but police seem to enjoy their labels and designations in order to stir up support for their operations. The checkpoints this past week produced ten arrests, with four of those being drug related. The arrests yielded marijuana, prescription pills, drug paraphernalia, a switchblade knife, and $7,000 in cash. The questions being asked in the wake of these unorthodox checkpoints are many, and include whether the efforts of law enforcement were worth it and whether their tactics were even legal.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office ran point on the checkpoint with the help of numerous other agencies such as the Bel Air, Aberdeen, and State Police departments. The transportation authority police, who always jumps at a chance to get involved in highway related drug trafficking busts also helped out. Cleary there were abundant law enforcement efforts devoted to the checkpoints, which means thousands of tax payer dollars and manpower resources that were unavailable for other tasks. In addition a couple thousand motorists were subjected to police intrusion as they moved innocently about. It’s safe to say that these checkpoints were not even close to being worth four drug arrests, some cash and a switchblade. DUI checkpoints are notoriously ineffective at achieving their goal and this makeshift heroin checkpoint seems even worse. The amount of police manpower it takes to run a checkpoint never adds up to actual arrest numbers, and the prevention factor is all hypothetical. The dozens of officers working these checkpoints would undoubtedly have made more arrests if they were simply working standard road patrol shifts. Not to mention avoiding the in your face police state law enforcement tactics that should only be used in extreme circumstances.

police-224426_640The question of the drug checkpoint’s legality is slightly more complicated, and despite gaining the State’s Attorney’s approval the checkpoints may have been unconstitutional. This means that the 10 arrests might not produce any convictions for prosecutors. Drug focused checkpoints have been declared unconstitutional in the past, and DUI checkpoints have numerous requirements that need to be met in order to be deemed legal. Cops in this particular operation tried to distinguish their actions from DUI checkpoints and argued that no motorists were actually randomly stopped. But judges, and especially federal judges, frown upon police activity that tries to outsmart the constitution and the case precedent that interprets it. The makeshift checkpoints may not have mirrored the intrusions of standard DUI checkpoints, but this doesn’t mean that police can avoid checkpoint requirements for legality. One Harford sheriff said the operation was nothing like a DUI checkpoint, which is a naïve and juvenile statement considering the first thought in everyone’s mind was to compare this week’s operations to DUI checkpoints. The Blog may post a follow up article if we see more of these controversial drug checkpoints pop up around the state.

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gelcap.jpgDrug and alcohol related deaths have increased statewide over the past few years, and the jump from 2013 to 2014 was so significant that the governor has declared a health crisis in Maryland. The state health department recently released its annual report for this past year, and the numbers are frightening to say the least. Over 1,000 people died directly from drug and alcohol overdoses last year, which represents a 21 percent increase from 2013. More than half of those deaths were the result of heroin, a narcotic whose popularity has been increasing exponentially over the past decade. In his first year of office, Governor Hogan has made it a priority to combat drug overdoses, and he has taken proactive measures such as approving a bill expanding the use of Naloxone, an opioid antagonist that reverses the effects of heroin. Many police officers statewide, including those in Anne Arundel County, now carry this powerful life saving drug. Chances are that more departments will add it to their officer’s essential police equipment in the future. Ultimately though, the governor’s focus will be on breaking up heroin trafficking rings, and on educating the youth about the dangers of even one single dose this dangerous drug.
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handgun-231699_640.jpgGovernor Elect Hogan is not scheduled to begin his term as Maryland’s top politician for another 6 weeks, but he has already publicized a few of his plans for gun control and drug abuse. The infamous Maryland firearms safety act appears to be safe for the foreseeable future, as Hogan’s camp is on record stating they would not take action to try to repeal the law. On the other hand, the act still faces scrutiny from the federal court system. The hardline gun law was upheld in the United States District Court in Baltimore over the summer, but is now before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The federal appellate judges will examine whether the firearms safety act infringes on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and will consider the briefs of twenty-one different states, including Florida and Michigan, who have filed briefs urging the court to overturn the law. The Governor Elect has not publicized a detailed opinion of the firearms safety act, and will likely wait until he has taken office to do so. But Hogan has been clear thus far that his office will not challenge the incoming attorney general or the predominantly democratic legislature to repeal the law.
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heroindeal.jpgHeroin use throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area has been on the rise for the last few years, and now the national media has taken notice. A recent episode of National Geographic Channel’s television series Drugs Inc., was filmed in Baltimore, and documented just how out of control the heroin epidemic has become in the city. The show dubbed Baltimore the heroin capital of America, and while there is no statistical evidence to support this dramatic claim, there is certainly enough evidence to prove at least the presence of an epidemic. The Blog has posted a few articles about the increasing popularity of heroin, which is attributed to a variety of factors including the low cost and a high supply of the dangerous drug. Stricter regulations on prescription narcotics have also been a major factor in the recent heroin boom, as it has become more expensive and more difficult for drug users to secure their once plentiful supply of oxycodone and other similar narcotics on the street. Doctors and pharmacies have become less inclined to prescribe and dispense these highly addictive painkillers, thus leading to a decline of legal and illegal sales. The television show touched on this fact and also credited increased education and awareness of prescription medication addiction as other factors for lower abuse rates. Less abuse of prescription narcotics may have come at a steep price though, and not only in Baltimore, but also in the surrounding suburbs.
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Heroin2.jpgIn the first three months of 2014 Maryland witnessed a dramatic increase in the amount of statewide drug overdose deaths. From January through March 2014 there have been 252 deaths, 148 of which were related to heroin. The total number is 33 percent higher than the first three months of last year, and remarkably is higher than the total number of traffic fatalities in the same time frame. While the majority of these deaths have occurred in areas such as Baltimore City that are quite familiar with drug overdoses, there have also been a staggering number of deaths in the suburbs. For communities in Ann Arundel, Frederick, and Harford counties drug overdoses are not commonplace, and seem to make news headlines each time they occur. The news headlines generate talk among the public, which in turn places pressure on the police and the government. Police forces around the state have already taken action, placing more emphasis on breaking up drug trafficking rings that deal with dangerous narcotics such as heroin prescription drugs. Additionally law enforcement officers are receiving thorough training on drug overdoses, and are now carrying the anti overdose medicine Narcan in their squad cars. There is no doubt that when the 2015 legislative session rolls around we will see bills specifically designed to address the increased amount of overdoses. But for now the state government has only responded in the form of an executive order from the governor’s office.
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