The spike in prescription drug abuse has reopened the debate about the severity of North Carolina’s drug laws, with opinions focused on whether penalties for trafficking prescription narcotics should be strengthened or relaxed.
The arguments center around the state’s general statutes, which place a mandatory prison sentence of between nearly six and seven years for anyone caught with more than 4 grams of heroin, opium or an opium derivative. Opium is the acting ingredient in prescription painkillers.
That means possession of only a few pills – four in the case of Lorcet, five Percocets or six Vicodin – exposes a person to many years behind bars.
And the sentences only increase the more drugs a person has – as much as 23 years in prison for trafficking more than 28 grams. A doctor may prescribe more than that in a single visit.
“You can literally end your life in prison on a handful of pills,” said Chris Thomas, an assistant district attorney in Brunswick County.
Thomas said he believes the punishments for prescription drug dealing are, under some circumstances, too stiff.
“When the legislature enacted the trafficking law back when they did, I don’t think they ever intended it to apply to prescription drugs. That was when heroin was a big problem,” he said. “But it’s one of those things that’s on the books, and it’s a tool that we’re going to utilize.”
Janet Coleman, a New Hanover County assistant district attorney who tries drug cases, said that a lot of people she prosecutes for the problem have no previous criminal record.
“None, zero, not even a speeding ticket,” she said. “They are otherwise law-abiding citizens who end up in this nightmare.”
The issue has gained the attention of state lawmakers.
In the General Assembly session that ended in 2008, state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, introduced a bill that would have allowed some convicted traffickers to get out after serving half their sentence if they lacked a violent criminal history and did not have a firearm when the offense was committed, in addition to meeting other criteria. The bill never made it out of committee.
On the other end, there have been several instances of individuals and groups pushing for tighter penalties, particularly against drug dealers.
Crystal Burnett, who in 2008 lost her brother, 24-year-old Nicholas Murray, to a prescription drug overdose, circulated a petition in the months following his death. She hoped to convince legislators to revamp the laws so dealers would be held more accountable when their customers die.
Burnett said she met with a local legislator about the issue in the beginning of 2010, but the notion stalled because of North Carolina’s rule of contributory negligence – a term that means if a person contributes to their own injury, they can not seek damages from another person.
While state law technically allows dealers connected to an overdose to be charged with second-degree murder, those cases are rarely brought up because it has proved difficult to prove that the dealer intended to harm the user, prosecutors said.
Steven Steiner, the founder and president of the advocacy organization Dads and Mad Moms Against Drug Dealers, lost his son to an Oxycontin overdose 10 years ago.
He said drug laws need to be stringently enforced.
“Everybody knows what’s going to happen when they get caught, but they want to blame everybody but their own selves,” he said. “I don’t feel sorry for them at all. And for parents that are trying to raise kids in our country, why should I worry about somebody’s freedom if they’re willing to take my son from me?”
By Brian Freskos
Published: Monday, December 19, 2011
Note: their is a trafficking sentencing chart on the site linked above that I am having trouble getting to format properly- at least in the time I have
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Does punishment fit prescription drug trafficking crimes?