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A growing number of law enforcement officials around the country are prosecuting drug dealers for causing heroin overdose deaths, the Associated Press reports. Prosecutors are using laws that come with stiff penalties to target drug dealers and members of the drug supply chain, and connect them and the drugs they sell to deadly overdoses.

Many people who were addicted to prescription painkillers switched to heroin after drug companies made their products more difficult to crush and snort. Heroin is also much less expensive than pills such as oxycodone.

According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people who were past-year heroin users in 2011 (620,000) was higher than the number in 2007 (373,000).

“We’re going to be ruthless,” Prosecutor Joseph Coronato of Ocean County, New Jersey, told the AP. “We’re looking for long-term prison sentences.” He and other prosecutors in New Jersey are using the state’s “strict liability for drug death” statute. The law holds dealers and producers responsible for a user’s death, and comes with a 20-year maximum sentence.

Until recently, overdoses were treated by law enforcement officials as accidents, the article notes. Now, when law enforcement hears about an overdose, detectives are immediately dispatched to the scene. Paramedics are instructed to treat overdoses as crimes, and coroners are requested to order autopsies and preserve evidence. It can be difficult to prove a death was caused only by heroin if a person also used other opioids, drugs or alcohol.

Kerry Harvey, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Kentucky, has started prosecuting people who sold prescription opioids and heroin, under a federal law banning the distribution of illegal substances. The law allows for additional penalties if a death occurs.

Officials are also using cellphones to track text messages and calls related to drug purchases.


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