How Much More Vicious Will the War on Painkillers Get?
Authorities look for new ways to hold others responsible for overdoses and throw them in jail.
More searches. More prosecutions. More punishment. More jail. The way governments—federal, state, and local—are responding to the opioid crisis continue to demonstrate the dangers of a "somebody, do something" mentality.
Weekend news coverage of how police and prosecutors are choosing to address opioid deaths revolves around the nasty inertia of increasing control. Officials want more power and the ability to inflict more punishment, regardless of prohibition's lengthy history of failure.
In New York, prosecutors are looking to try to charge dealers with manslaughter when the people they sell heroin or opioids to end up dying from overdoses. The New York Times reported on this push over the weekend, and officials' attitudes can be summed up by this perfectly awful quote from narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan: "We're not winning. We've got to do more."
Brennan's only tool is a very nasty hammer, and as the Times notes, she previously used it to send a doctor to prison for at least 10 years for recklessly handing out opioid prescriptions. Two of his patients died of overdoses, and he was convicted of manslaughter (among other crimes).
Prosecutors may have the power to put people behind bars, but they're not the ones who can "win" this battle. We know from decades of the drug war that what prosecutors often end up doing is ripping apart low-income, marginalized families and tossing addicts in prison for long mandatory minimum sentences.
Culturally, there's still an image that "drug dealers" are sinister men (often black) on street corners looking to prey on vulnerable citizens. The reality is that is often not the case. And in fact, the way the law defines dealers is designed to sweep up all sorts of people with just tangential connections to the idea of distributing drugs.
Stephen Cummings, the alleged drug dealer charged with manslaughter at the center of the Times weekend report, bragged about how powerful the fentanyl-laced heroin was to a wired undercover police officer, according to authorities. He reportedly acknowledged that the heroin was powerful enough to kill a friend's father, thus the manslaughter charges.
But according to his brother, Cummings is also an addict and needs rehab. Cummings' only prior conviction is for possession. Others arrested in this sting also said that they're addicts, and they think prosecutors are trying to use them as a "test case." They should count their blessings that they don't live in Florida, where they could potentially be charged with first-degree murder.
Meanwhile in New Jersey, lawmakers are considering a bill to allow police to access a prescription drug–monitoring database without having to get a court order. Republican state Sen. Robert Singer, the legislation's sponsor, acknowledges in a Washington Post story that he's doing the bidding of a county prosecutor who wants to try to go after doctors.
Civil libertarians are understandably upset at the idea that police should be able to just demand access to our personal medical information. But Singer insists that such privacy concerns are overblown: The opioid crisis is severe, and therefore, he argues, Americans should be willing to make an exception. He also, remarkably, used the fact that Americans' phones are being tracked as an example of how we should be willing to give up our privacy, even though civil liberties groups heavily oppose phone tracking as well.
Gov. Chris Christie opposes the legislation, so it may not get far. It's nevertheless worth noting as part of a trend. Other states—most recently Rhode Island—have passed laws providing similar access.
Also getting weekend coverage, we also have attorneys attempting to convince states to sue opioid manufacturers the way they sued tobacco manufacturers, accusing them of misrepresenting the benefits of painkillers.
To embrace an idea like that, you have to ignore the impact on people who suffer from chronic pain and are not addicts. This isn't anything like tobacco. Opioids are indeed dangerous when misused, but they clearly serve an important medical purpose. When we see this behavior from officials, we should think about how the government's classification of marijuana as an illicit drug slowed down the discovery of its genuine medicinal purposes.
The opioid crisis crackdown is making life even harsher and more miserable for chronic pain sufferers. Reason TV recently interviewed a doctor who refused to be cowed by government efforts to reduce access to painkillers, even for those who desperately need them. Watch below: