The Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would double sentences for heroin dealers. The bill also targets users by imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for any possession of the harmful narcotic.
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reports that House Bill 332 will now be considered by the Senate. The bill is an attempt by lawmakers to address the surge of heroin use in the state.
Critics of the bill argue that mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders do nothing to address the state’s drug problem and have only served to strain the prison system with a growing population.
“Louisiana already has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and part of the reason for that is their history with mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses,” Lauren Galik, told The Advocate. Galik is a policy analyst with the libertarian think tank, the Reason Foundation, who has studied sentencing laws in Louisiana.
Confronted with a rising number of deaths from heroin overdoses, lawmakers seem at a loss for ways to deal with the problem. The hope is that a two year sentence will serve as a deterrent and then allow addicts to continue to seek help. Those sentenced under the law would be required to participate in substance abuse treatment.
“I think everybody understands the danger of heroin,” said Rep. Joseph Lopinto, the Republican author of the bill. “I don’t want to put them away for the rest of their lives, but from the other standpoint, I want to make it enough of a deterrent that when they do get out of prison they say, ‘I’m staying away from that stuff.’ That’s the purpose.”
Officials believe the rise in heroin use is the result of a crackdown on prescription drug abuse according to WBRZ in Baton Rouge. As painkillers became less available on the black market heroin prices fell and demand for the opiate increased.
"In 2012 we seized around 70 grams of heroin, compared to 2013 has been around 3,800 grams of heroin," said Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Don Coppola.
As the bill heads to the state Senate there is sure to be debate as to whether users should face stiffer penalties. Some lawmakers believe the solution to the problem is to focus solely on dealers.
“I have all the sympathy in the world for the addict, and I’d like to see them get treatment, but I have zero sympathy for those who distribute it because they’re distributing a death sentence,” said Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge.