Hammers, Nails & Heroin
June 23, 2016 (Fault Lines) — How to deal with a problem?
I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
–Abraham Maslow, 1966
Heroin, like cocaine, is a hell of a drug. And not in a good way. Since the turn of the century, deaths by heroin overdose have spiked by a factor of six. One of the reasons it’s such a menace is because the withdrawal symptoms are so traumatic, and are as much physiological as they are psychological. Heroin has passed cocaine and meth as the drug menace du jour.
This has the effect of making people stupider about how to deal with the problem. As Greenfield pointed out:
And boom, the solution. Harsher penalties for drug dealers, because the regimen of the War on Drugs of the past 50 years where tiny quantities of drugs resulted in sentences of life plus cancer didn’t do the trick. Maybe life plus double cancer?
Remember those few bright, shining moments when “smart on crime” replaced “tough on crime” as the thoughtful slogan? Yeah, it’s gone. The reforms announced with great fanfare fade quickly, because there was a new crime, a new hysteria, that had to be fixed. Because there must be a fix, there must be a law. There must be.
Or, we can use the laws we already have in a stupid way. This is the approach taken by the authorities in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, who have charged two heroin addicts with second degree murder. It started with an overdose:
Jaime Hymel told detectives that she woke up face-down on the concrete after a near-overdose March 2, only to discover that her longtime friend Richard Keller Jr. had stopped breathing at his Destrehan home from his own drug use.
Despite her frantic efforts, she could not wake him. So she called 911.
She was still in the hospital when she agreed to act as an informant to help arrest the Kenner man who authorities allege sold her the combination of heroin and fentanyl that killed Keller, 38, and nearly took her life.
Because of her cooperation, Roderick “Lucky” Hackett, 40, was arrested later the same day.
But in a strange twist in the case, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office on Monday booked both Hymel, 39, and Hackett, who already has been convicted of attempted heroin distribution in the case, on second-degree murder counts in Keller’s death.
Louisiana’s second degree murder statute reads in its relevant part:
Second degree murder is the killing of a human being:
(3) When the offender unlawfully distributes or dispenses a controlled dangerous substance listed in Schedules I through V of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, or any combination thereof, which is the direct cause of the death of the recipient who ingested or consumed the controlled dangerous substance.
(4) When the offender unlawfully distributes or dispenses a controlled dangerous substance listed in Schedules I through V of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, or any combination thereof, to another who subsequently distributes or dispenses such controlled dangerous substance which is the direct cause of the death of the person who ingested or consumed the controlled dangerous substance.
This is a stupid law. Its purpose has little to with actually preventing addiction or even preventing deaths by overdose. Rather, it’s yet another attempt to DO SOMETHING about an intractable problem, with the usual results. Doctrinally speaking, it makes second degree murder out of what is basically involuntary manslaughter. Practically speaking, it creates an incentive for people who witness an OD to do nothing. Hymel would have better off if she had simply woke up from her bender and walked away, leaving Keller to die.
[St. Charles Parish Sherriff Greg] Champagne acknowledged that Hymel’s case presents unusual complexities, given that she both called 911 and aided investigators. “The prosecutors can certainly take those things into consideration,” he said. “The courts can take all of those things into consideration.”
They can’t, actually. The penalty for second degree murder in Louisiana doesn’t allow for “consideration”:
- Whoever commits the crime of second degree murder shall be punished by life imprisonment at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.
What’s worse is that the charges don’t even make sense in their own terms:
Champagne touted the arrests as a warning to both drug dealers and users.
The second-degree murder statute is increasingly being used at a time when officials seek to curb a troubling increase in deaths linked to heroin.
How, exactly, is it supposed to serve as a “warning?” This is like something out of Dr. Strangelove:
Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?
Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.
In other words, it can’t be a deterrent if people don’t know about it. Does Champagne really thing that smackheads follow the news closely enough that they would think of this case the next time Black Betty is calling their name?
Here’s Champagne’s rationale:
“People are dying from heroin overdoses, so we’ve got to take a stand,” Champagne said. “It’s second-degree murder, so we’re going to charge it.”
In other words, Champagne sees a problem, heroin addiction. He (and the prosecutor) have only one tool in their box: the ability to bring whatever charges the law will support. The nuances of public health, medicine, psychology and all the other things that go into drug addiction make no difference. To them, drug addicts are all a bunch of nails, so pull out the hammer because that’s all they’ve got.