Problem caused by lower sentencing standards, officials say
Kim McElwee has been an assistant district attorney since 1985 when she began her career with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.
“Back when I first started as a prosecutor at Tulane and Broad in New Orleans, a senior assistant district attorney pulled out a small little piece of foil right before we were going to trial and said, ‘He is going to get life in prison for this’…it was heroin,” McElwee said.
McElwee, who has been with the St. Charles Parish D.A.’s office since 1997, said after those first few years she did not see heroin cases very often any more.
However, since that time the statute dealing mandatory sentences for heroin dealers has changed.
In 2002, instead of receiving a mandatory life sentence with the possibility for parole, heroin dealers now face a five-to-50-year sentence and a $50,000 fine for dealing the drug.
Recently, both the district attorney and the sheriff are reporting that heroin use is up in the parish.
“I think for whatever reason heroin is making a comeback. My office, in connection with the Sheriff’s Office, is determined to put a stop to it,” District Attorney Joel Chaisson said. “It is destroying people’s lives and we are determined to put heroin dealers in jail for a very long time.”
Sheriff Greg Champagne said during his time as an assistant district attorney in St. Charles Parish heroin had gone away.
“I don’t remember in my 14 to 15 years as a prosecutor handling a heroin case,” Champagne said.
Although he could not provide statistics, Champagne said that over the past two years the number of arrests of those using and possessing heroin has gone up.
“We probably have over 100 arrests in 2012 alone involving possession and distribution of heroin,” he said.
In the past three weeks, there have been four possession of heroin arrests and two distribution of heroin arrests. Before one of those arrests, a suspected heroin dealer led sheriff’s deputies on a pursuit and was later charged with attempted first-degree murder for allegedly trying to run over two deputies.
McElwee said there are currently 10 open cases of heroin possession and distribution, including one that is set for trial.
Champagne said although decreased sentencing standards have had an effect on the drug’s proliferation, they are not completely to blame for the return of heroin.
“It used to be a life sentence because heroin was so bad,” Champagne said. “I guess that has all come down now and those penalties have been in line with cocaine and everything else.”
Champagne said his office has linked the increase in heroin-related arrests to the lack of access to pharmaceutical opiates that create a similar high to heroin.
A few years ago, rule changes were enacted to the state board of pharmacy that computerized prescription information and allowed law enforcement agencies to more closely examine pharmaceutical records for those who were procuring controlled substances.
Champagne said since the computerization of those records, the number of people trying to game the medical system and get multiple prescriptions from numerous doctors, a process known as doctor shopping, has dropped significantly.
Instead, those drug abusers have turned to more elicit street drugs such as heroin.
“There is much closer scrutiny for people who are doctor shopping,” Champagne said. “That has driven them away from that market. They need a serious drug and heroin fits. Heroin is the drug of choice for those who are addicted to oxycodone and oxycontin.”
Chaisson said in addition to those who have been longtime drug abusers, the increased prevalence of heroin is resulting in a new generation being introduced to the drug.
“Young people are getting arrested for possession of heroin,” Chaisson said. “We are getting complaints from families and friends on how it is destroying people’s lives. It really is a very dangerous drug.”
Champagne said that the rise of heroin as a drug of choice is not limited to St. Charles Parish or Louisiana.
“It is coming from other countries and it’s getting all over and it is bad,” he said.
Champagne said the rise in heroin-related arrests has been correlated to higher property crime rates such as theft.
He said the best thing the community can do to help curb the problem is report those who they know are abusing the drug.
“If they know someone, even if it is a family member, that is becoming addicted to heroin they need to report it. Because sooner or later they are going to be stealing from them and everyone they know,” Champagne said.
McElwee said although the number of heroin arrests are few in comparison to other drug arrests, she believes heroin addiction is worse than that to other drugs.
“I’ve always thought that heroin would take society down because it is so addictive and hard to recover from,” McElwee said. “We see people in drug court that come back over and over again.”
As part of the effort to take down dealers in the parish, the Sheriff’s Office is using confidential informants (CIs). CIs are drug users who have been charged with possession and are then used by the Sheriff’s Office to ensnare drug dealers in exchange for dropping the charges in their case.
“The Sheriff’s Office is using these people out in the community because they are the ones doing drugs,” McElwee said. “But as you can imagine sometimes they are not seen as the most reliable sources.”
Last year, a major heroin dealer was convicted through the use of CIs.
“Lencarl White was selling heroin out of an ice cream truck. He received 20 years. That is a significant sentence in St. Charles Parish,” McElwee said.
In addition to using CIs, McElwee said the Sheriff’s Office utilizes undercover officers who embed themselves in a community of drug users. After a period of time they arrest everyone they have bought drugs from in what is called a “round up.”
McElwee said during the next round up the D.A.’s office will focus more on heroin.
“The next round up, whenever it comes, there will be a notable change. They will be scrutinized more,” she said. “This is being monitored and this is being heeded and we are not going to put up with it.”
Champagne echoed McElwee.
“We have zero tolerance,” Champagne said.