Some suspects arrested for selling heroin and opiates may soon find themselves behind bars until they go to trial.
District Attorney Jon David, along with his brother, New Hanover DA Ben David, announced a new initiative Tuesday to request higher bonds for some drug dealers and traffickers, as well as pushing for heavier charges. The prosecutors made the announcement Tuesday at the Battleship North Carolina, where they were joined by sheriffs from all five counties in the two districts, including Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher.
With the rise in heroin usage, Jon David said, law enforcement is facing a new and even deadlier problem. Rather than focusing on street dealers and users, David said, law enforcement and the prosecutors’ offices are going to focus on the larger-scale dealers.
“We have had a war on drugs for a long time,” Jon David said. “We need a war on drug dealers. We are going to make them understand the cost of doing business just got a lot more expensive.”
David said that after meeting with magistrates, law enforcement officers and judges, he has formally requested that “professional, for profit” drug dealers now see bonds of $1 million or more in large-scale dealing and trafficking cases. The initiative is primarily focused on the growing problem of heroin, he said.
“In Columbus and Bladen counties, pills are still the big problem,” he said, but in Brunswick and New Hanover, heroin is taking over as people find it harder to get prescription opioids. Our goal is to prevent the heroin trade from spreading any further than it has.”
Heroin is far more dangerous than prescription opioid abuse, David explained. The drug is usually injected, but can be snorted. Heroin is often less expensive than prescription medication, and has a more intense high. The euphoria also ends sooner than with prescription opiates, and addiction is far faster and more severe.
Heroin addiction and use are also deadlier, David said.
“You have no way of knowing what heroin has been cut with, or the purity of the drug,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more heroin being mixed with illegal Fentanyl, and resulting in overdose deaths. There is an increased danger with heroin use, and that’s one reason we want to treat it differently across the board.
“Heroin is killing people, and it has the potential to kill even more than prescription pills.”
Investigators and court officials have been receptive to the idea, David said.
“Magistrates are independent, and have the responsibility to judge each case by its merits,” David explained, “but we have let them know that law enforcement will be officially asking for higher bonds, and law enforcement is willing to be on board with this.”
With the rise in overdose deaths, David said, he and other judicial officials are lobbying for a new “death by distribution” statute.
“Currently it’s tough to charge someone with murder if they sell the drugs used in an overdose,” he said. “All we can usually go for is involuntary manslaughter or second degree murder at the most. With a ‘death by distribution’ law, we can charge a dealer with first degree murder in an overdose case.”
The new push against “poison for profit dealers” is not aimed at “subsistence level street dealers,” David said.
“We are not directing this at the people who are dealing to support their own habit,” David said. “They still need to be stopped and brought before the court, but they need treatment options as well. The ones who are selling the drugs at the next level, the hardcore dealers, those are the ones we want to see locked away until their trials when it’s appropriate.”
David said that even though bondsmen generally discount rates for high bonds, “the defendant is going to have a problem accessing that kind of cash without raising more red flags.” Most bail bond rates run seven to 10 percent, depending on the amount. That money is paid to the bondsman, and is not refunded to the suspect.
The prosecutor said he expects some pushback on the initiative, and that he was told shortly after Tuesday’s announcement that the American Civil Liberties Union called the million-dollar bond proposal “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “A bond is a guarantee that someone shows up for court, and is a tool to keep the public safe from someone who has been charged with a crime and is a danger to the public. Keeping the public safe is our job in the District Attorney’s office.”
David said that while heroin use is growing in Columbus and Bladen, the problem has not reached nearly the levels it has in other counties.
“We think we have bad problems with theft and break-ins now,” he said. “Wait til heroin surpasses pills. The level of violence and crime is significantly higher. The overdose death rate is higher. Those are some of the reasons we’re trying to stop heroin dealers before they move their poison into Columbus and Bladen.”