Rarely does law enforcement act as swiftly and broadly following a drug overdose as the New York Police Department did in arresting four people Tuesday night allegedly connected to drugs found in the apartment of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The action, within two days of the actor’s death from an apparent overdose (autopsy results remain inconclusive), is the most notable to date in the month-old tenure of new NYPD commissioner William Bratton. But prosecutors say it is also reflective of a small but growing group of municipalities looking to be more aggressive in targeting suppliers of drugs in connection with overdose deaths.
Prosecutors in Kentucky, Minnesota and Oregon are increasingly going after suppliers as heroin use is on the rise nationwide. In Ocean County, N.J., prosecutor Joseph Coronato has been utilizing a state statute in which drug suppliers can be found liable for a user’s death. In 2012, Coronato says his county had 53 overdose deaths. That doubled in 2013 to 112. This year, he says there have been seven overdoses related to heroin.
“This is a problem that nobody has wanted to talk about because they think it’s an inner-city problem,” Coronato says. “But it cuts across all areas of the country.”
Coronato’s office has prosecuted four separate cases in less than a year to convict dealers tied to an overdose death.
But many cases still go without arrests at all, including that of actor Cory Monteith. A coroner’s report found that the late Glee star died from an overdose of heroin and alcohol in Vancouver. Three people were questioned about his death by the Vancouver Police Department but no arrests were made.
If local officials are looking to tackle suppliers on the street, the federal approach increasingly focuses on diminishing demand. The Obama administration’s 2013 National Drug Control Strategy calls for reforming drug policy and plays down prosecution. It calls for special drug courts to replace some criminal ones, promotes early medical intervention, emphasizes prevention over incarceration, and declares that “the United States cannot arrest or incarcerate its way out of the drug problem.”