Commonwealth Journal

September 28, 2013

Court system seeing heroin fly back

Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — The war on drugs seems never-ending, because the enemy has an unrelenting supply of troops.

Just when local law enforcement stifles the abuse of methamphetamine and prescription painkillers, an old foe reemerges with a vengeance — heroin.

“We seem to get a grip on one thing, but the vacuum is quickly filled by something else,” said Pulaski Circuit Judge David A. Tapp. “Sometimes it’s something new ... but sometimes it’s something that we’ve seen before.

“Substance abuse is cyclic,” Tapp added. “Heroin has been around before. And now it’s back.”

Tapp, who once worked in law enforcement himself, saw the cycle first-hand.

“I can remember crystal meth coming to the forefront, then black tar heroin, then heroin from the Far East,” Tapp said. ”We don’t notice it until it migrates here, but I would say it’s pretty much the same all around the nation.”

Tapp fears heroin may be difficult to take down.

“I think most people would agree that intravenous drug abuse is much more difficult to treat than pills or drugs you snort,” Tapp said. ”Heroin addiction is a horrible addiction.

“The courts mirror what law enforcement sees, and what the treatment centers and the churches see,” Tapp added. “We’re seeing more and more criminal cases involving heroin. ”

The numbers appear to agree with Tapp’s statement.

“It is definitely trending right now,” said Assistant Pulaski Commonwealth’s Attorney David Dalton. “We are seeing an increase in heroin.”

Those involved on all levels of law enforcement — from the patrol officer to the narcotics detective and to attorneys on opposite sides of the courtroom — are pointing to market forces as the key behind the shift.

“This is market-driven,” said Dalton. “If they can’t get pills or get methamphetamine, they need something else to get high.”

Painkillers and meth have long been viewed as the most oft-abused substances in Eastern Kentucky, and in Pulaski County. And those substance still appear to be the drug of choice among users.

“It’s not passing meth, and it’s not passing pills,” said Dalton.

But the numbers are showing a huge increase in heroin-related cases making their way through the judicial system in 2013 compared to years before.

A look through criminal cases filed in Pulaski Circuit Court — i.e. after an indictment has been handed down or after a plea is entered — reveals that, in 2011, only one indictment was handed down involving heroin. That was a trafficking offense.

In 2012, seven indictments involving heroin-related crimes were handed down — two possession and five trafficking charges.

And in 2013, ten indictments were handed down in heroin cases. Eight of those were trafficking cases (in other words, the defendants were charged with selling or attempting to sell the substance), and two were possession cases.

An additional two cases were solved through the Rocket Docket program, where defendants choose to waive their rights to a grand jury hearing and accept a plea deal. One of those cases involved Matthew Stock, of Ohio, who just last week was arrested with another defendant at the Red Roof Inn in Somerset for heroin trafficking. After nine hours of surveillance by narcotics investigators, search warrants were issued for two hotel rooms and the vehicle of the suspects. The search netted 16 grams of heroin, valued at more than $5,000, and around $2,400 in cash.

Stock pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance for selling more than two grams of heroin to a confidential informant. The second defendant, Jeffrey Scott Smith, of Florida, has yet to see his case resolved.

It must be noted that an indictment doesn’t necessarily mean a conviction. Indictments are handed down after a grand jury finds enough evidence against a defendant to send the case on to trial.

Authorities are a bit alarmed at the increasing prevalence of heroin in the area — not so much that it means more addicts, but it means a different, and even less stable way, of getting high. With recent safeguards put in place to make other drugs of choice harder to get, heroin is gaining a foothold.

“There is an entire market geared to feeding off people’s addictions,” said Dalton.

Heroin also appears to be a bit cheaper. In Pulaski County, the going rate for one tenth of a gram of heroin is about $35, which is actually higher than in bigger cities.

With heroin comes a more intense high, but it comes with more danger as well. Depending on how many hands the drug has passed through, heroin can come to the user with a wide variety of potency. Dealers will often “cut” the product, which means they add innocuous substances to it to make more, but with a lower potency. A user could expect product with 50 percent purity, but end up shooting heroin with 75 percent purity — a much stronger version of the drug.

That is why accidental overdoses are so common with heroin.

Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Detectives Daryl Kegley and Rodney Stevens estimate that around 90 percent of all crimes can be traced back to drugs.

Dalton had a similar sentiment, and he said the justice system has an obligation to help victims regain their sense of security.

“I see families in here who have lost everything to someone who stole things, looking to get high,” said Dalton. “I can’t give all that back to them ... but I hope that, maybe if we hammer them enough, it’ll discourage the next person from doing it.”

Often times, defendants are offered drug treatment if they are found eligible for the program. But defendants can’t be forced into treatment, and Dalton said many turn the offer down. Dalton said drug treatment is one of the court’s few tools it has to battle drug addiction.

“I don’t want to excuse the conduct (of the defendants),” said Dalton. “I want us to view it knowing they’re people.

“If we can address both (the crime and the needs of the defendant), let’s do that,” Dalton added. “ ... The market dictates that we protect the public. We’re not going to quit doing our jobs just because people find new and better ways to break the law.”

Local defense attorney Robert Norfleet estimates that eight out of 10 of his clients are struggling with drug addiction. Norfleet said the problem isn’t necessarily with the drug addict, but with a court system that doesn’t have the tools to treat addiction as a mental health issue.

“My clients always ask me for the blueprint,” said Norfleet. “They always say ‘Tell me what I can do here in Pulaski County to get off (drugs).’”

The answer is always the same: Get clean, try to find a job, stay away from bad people and bad habits.

But Norfleet said society works against the drug addict. Jobs are that much harder to find for those who have found themselves in the court system. They’re not viewed as people needing treatment for a disease, but as failures.

“Someone who has this desire to escape reality so bad ... we call someone who commits suicide because they want to escape as (ill), but the person who takes pills to escape reality a criminal,” said Norfleet. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

And Norfleet said substance abuse doesn’t discriminate. Although he points out that substance abuse can be more prevalent in lower-class societies, he said education level and class really doesn’t determine who is an addict and who isn’t.

“ ... The urge is that bad, they can’t control it ... to them, the risk is worth the reward,” said Norfleet.

Dalton and Norfleet may be working on opposite sides of the courtroom, but they see the same defendants — and their struggles — day in and day out. They both agree that, until drug addiction is approached differently, the problem may never be eased.

“You want to help as best you can,” said Dalton. “But how? If I could, I would get rid of unemployment, have parents be able to spend more time with their kids ... we can’t make everybody be nice to each other.”

“It all goes back to the mental health issue,” said Norfleet.