Op-ed: Heroin sellers should pay a steeper price for dealing death

Posted at 8:25 AM, Jun 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-14 08:25:14-04

Tom Synan is the police chief of Newtown, Ohio and a leader of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition.

This op-ed is part of WCPO's Heroin Project: How Do We Respond?

In this battle against heroin and fentanyl, we must reduce the demand in order to reduce the supply. Like many in law enforcement, I’ve changed my approach to heroin, fentanyl and other opiates after seeing more people die from drug overdoses than auto accidents and homicides combined.

Tom Synan

I support medically assisted treatment over incarceration for those addicted to opiates, along with the use of Narcan, prevention and other methods. If we could reduce addiction to these types of drugs, we would reduce crime, the resources needed to cope with this epidemic and save lives. 

Dealers: The Other Part of the Equation

But there’s another part of this equation: those who sell these drugs. We as a society have not yet taken a strong enough stance against drugs and those who deal them to help make an impact on this epidemic. We have not made the risk outweigh the reward.

The pushback on being tougher on those who deal heroin and fentanyl is that some are addicted themselves; there is not enough room in the jails; there is not enough money, and some of those who deal do not have any other options due to economic or environmental conditions.  I hear and understand all of those excuses and, to be honest, that is what they boil down to -- excuses.  Each one is holding us back from breaking this cycle of drug dealing and drug addiction.

At some point, when several thousand people die from one cause, when those selling this "product" have culpable knowledge that what they are pushing is a highly addictive, chemically altering narcotic, even giving "free samples" in itself should be enough to have us all taking action.

Many are combining it with a more powerful, more addictive and what has proven to be a more deadly drug, fentanyl.  More than 400 people in Hamilton County died from drug overdoses in 2015.  In the U.S., 47,000 died from overdoses. If these were deaths from a car manufacturer, a skin product or a food product, would we not pass strong laws, would we not make the risk outweigh the reward?

The Risk Should Outweigh the Reward

True, these other examples may not be illegal, but all have one thing in common -- money.  Those dealing these powerful drugs couldn’t care less who they hurt, who they kill, how much each incident harms the community, drains resources and forces first responders to use taxpayer money on this never-ending cycle of dealing, addiction, crime and death.

I know there are those who believe arrests are not the answer. We have tried since the “war on drugs" was enacted and look where we are now. I know many of those dealing are addicts trying to support their addiction.  We cannot rely on the criminal justice system to end this epidemic, and those who are addicted should receive medically assisted treatment, not be sent to jail.

However, I do not agree that most people who sell heroin are addicted. There are some, but the vast majority are not, and the proof is in the large profits made from these drugs by dealers, cartels and others.

At some point, even those who are addicted must have consequences when their actions injure or kill others. The risk must outweigh the rewards for the dealer and the user.

The MADD Example

Maybe we should look to the work of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. I have seen the results of this organization’s work firsthand. When I started police work more than 20 years ago, drinking and driving did not have the stigma it does today. Now, society is changing it's behavior by taking cabs, Uber and using designated drivers.

Why did MADD do it?  Because too many people were dying.

How did they do it? By pushing for consequences that made people think twice before they served that extra drink or got behind the wheel. They knew if they if they got caught or killed or injured someone, they would be held accountable and face penalties that made the risk outweigh the reward.

It is time that all of us truly rethink how we approach this epidemic in a way some may call radical, unconventional or untried: shift money from incarcerating addicts to court-ordered, medical assisted treatment. Addicts must be accountable for their addiction in order to overcome it.

The addict should be replaced in jail with those who sell heroin and fentanyl.

They Know Heroin Kills

Those who sell heroin knew when they first exchanged that drug for money that they were hooking a customer. They even marked the paper the heroin was packaged in so their customers knew who to come back to.

Those who sell fentanyl know they’re stepping up "the game" by adding a more powerful drug, playing Russian roulette with those addicted. By selling a more powerful high, they ensured a repeat customer and if the customer did not come back they died, their philosophy is “there is always another.”

Dealers, you made your choice, your decision, believing the reward would outweigh the risk.  Well, it is time you paid a price for that choice. It’s time that you know the penalty will not be worth the risk.

You didn't care who you hurt. You didn't make the effort to legitimately make money.  Some will be able to show that not all who sell heroin, fentanyl and opiates are bad people or  come from tough backgrounds.  I’m sure that is true, but they made that choice, and many did so because they knew the money was worth more than the consequences.

We Need Tougher Penalties

We should not only mandate stronger sentences for those who sell heroin but demand stronger penalties for fentanyl, which has no purpose on the streets. Fentanyl is not made in labs by scientists or pharmacists, but by drug dealers only concerned with filling their pockets, even at the cost of another's life.

If it is money these dealers are concerned with, we should continue to hit them in the pocketbooks, using that money and assets for the exact opposite of what they would use it for -- drug education, prevention, help fund medical assisted treatment and law enforcement efforts to reduce supply.

I am not proposing  "blanket" sentences but we should give judges more ability to enact penalties that recognize the seriousness of these drugs.  A dealer who sells the poison of heroin and fentanyl should not be able to say "I will be right back out," or "I will do my time and be back in the game." They should not be able to shift blame on those addicted by saying "Hey, they wanted it, if they didn't want to get hurt they shouldn't do it.".

Instead they should be saying, "If I get caught I will pay a heavy price; this isn't worth it."

Let's Send a Message

Maybe it's time we followed the playbook of MADD and formed a national organization to send a powerful and influential message to society that we will no longer tolerate what these drugs are doing to our communities, our friends and our loved ones.

Mothers Against Heroin, Fathers Against Heroin, Communities Against Heroin, All Against Heroin. No matter the name, we must band together and call for action that sends a strong message to the dealers: enough! You have caused too much damage. It will not be tolerated. We will ensure, with one piece of the overall plan, that strong legislation is enacted to let you know that the risks do outweigh the rewards. 

Like many first responders, I’ve seen the price paid, having stood over the bodies of those who have died from overdoses. The children who must be told. The friends, family, and loved ones who stand next to you.  The grief they must endure of unanswered questions, feelings of guilt, shame and their wishes of just one more chance to intervene. It is that grief that I want to end, to give compassion to those who are hurt by this epidemic, compassion that those who deal these deadly drugs did not give.

The wrong people are taking all the risk while others are getting all the rewards.  We must change that.