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Heroin Deaths, Out of Control

The Washington Examiner has the grim story:

Heroin deaths are spiking in the U.S., concerning lawmakers who proclaim it an epidemic and public health issue.

Between 2012-13, the number of U.S. drug overdose deaths resulting from heroin spiked from 5,900 to 8,200, said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy Center.

"I've been with [the] DEA almost 30 years, and I have to tell you, I've never seen it this bad," Jack Riley, acting deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said at a House judiciary subcommittee hearingTuesday.

Only in a parallel universe could our lawmakers be considering lighter sentencing for heroin at a time that its lethal impact has never been more appalling.

If there is to be a vote in Congress on lowering drug sentences, it should be taken one drug at a time.  There may be many who would vote to lower sentences for pot. But if there are those who also want to lower sentences for heroin (or meth or Ecstasy or numerous other hard drugs), it would improve visibility and accountability if legislators would stand up, one at a time, and say so, drug-by-drug.

There was a day when liberals and libertarians agreed that visibility and accountability were valuable qualities in government.  We may see soon if that is still their view.


In an unregulated black market there is no reliable way to judge drug purity. Many people accidentally overdose when they use the same amount of a much more pure form of heroin than they ordinarily consume. If purities were controlled, as in a regulated drug marketplace, then many of those deaths could be prevented.

To be fair, I include some stats from the source which verify the numbers Mr. Otis provides.


I point out that there were a total of 46,000 overdose deaths of which 17,000 were from illegal drug use. That means more than 29,000 overdosed while under the supervision of a doctor with a prescription. Doctors kills nearly twice as many people in a legal market, as illegal drug users, do on their own, in a black market. Considering all the vagaries of acquiring and using black market drugs, black market drug users do a remarkably better job at not overdosing than legal drug users do via their doctors.

We would save many lives going after Doctors via regulatory, criminal and tort measures. We could also save many more lives if the market for drugs like heroin were legalized with proper regulation of its manufacture and purity.

Is it fair to note, Bill, that you vigorously assert in one breath we should not reduce sentences when certain crimes/harms are decreasing because we would risk undoing policies that you claim are working, but in the next breath we should not rede use sentences when other crimes/harms are increasing because we would risk making a bad situation worse.

In other words, when crime is down, Otis calls for preserving or increasing harsh sentences; when crime is up, Otis calls for preserving or increasing harsh sentences.

I genuine do not mean to lampoon your approach, but help me understand what I am missing when I perceive a one-way ratchet.

Fair enough observation, but I think my positions are consistent and principled.

We should continue doing what has worked for an entire generation to help reduce crime, and we should be especially eager to continue doing it when the problem (perhaps temporarily, for some market or adulteration reason I'm not seeing) shows worrisome signs of spiking.

P.S. Do you agree with my suggestion that Congress vote on drug sentencing drug-by-drug?

P.P.S. Thank you for reprinting on your blog a picture of me that doesn't make me look like an old coot.

"Fair enough observation . . . ." Bill you are being far too kind to Doug's sophistry.

If a particular type of crime is going up, if one believes that incarceration deters and incapacitates, then increased punishment is obviously on the table. If crime is down generally, why would we want to squander the lessons of the past for the benefit of criminals. Now, there may be certain punishments which, as a class, are silly. (Some of the statutory rape laws are flat-out nuts.)

Doug caricatures your approach and acts like it's an astute observation. It's balderdash, and it should be called out as such.

In the drug use/abuse setting, Bill and federalist, it seems to be a sad reality of human nature and the invisible hand of the market that some people are often seeking a new high and others people are eager to profit by providing a black market in that high. So, after legal drug pushers (Big Pharma and lazy docs) provided too much pain relief in pills, heroin dealers follow up seeking to make $$ by exploiting human weakness.

Existing tough sentences have likely contributed to the black market in heroin now being so valuable, though it is unclear that this value will be diminished by lighter sentences. Some tentative evidence suggests providing marijuana as a step down drug might reduce harms from opiates, and in legalization states we can reap jobs and tax revenue by urging a move from opiates to marijuana.

But federalist gets to the heart of this all: if we do not care much for freedom and care mostly for crime control, we can and should incapacitate through long terms of incarceration any and everyone who doee anything real bad. Lock up for long periods all the drunk drivers and perjurers and everyone else (including the statutory rapists) as they are all just crime-prone folks on the verge of victimizing more poeple. But do not let anyone out once incarcerated, as evidence suggests they are likely to be even more crime-prone after spending any time in jail.

Bill rightly notes we have less than 1% of our population incarcerated. Perhaps if we triple that with any and all persons involved with opiates and heroin, we could all live that much more safely. Damn the expense in dollars and freedom, lock em all up and throw away the key so the 97% of us left can be free from the sourage of drugs and so can have more time to clean our guns so to be ready for the next mentally ill person planning to go postal in a public place.

-- If anyone is proposing tripling the prison population, I missed it.

Oh.....wait.....STRAWMAN ALERT!!!!

People have a really easy way to avoid the Depradations of the Draconian State: Don't try to make a fast buck, don't think rules are only for other people, and don't exploit weakness and addiction.

This will shrink the prison population pronto, and won't cost a dime. It will have the added and essential virtue of placing responsibility where it belongs.

-- What you're overlooking is that addicts don't want a safer high. They want a higher high. That is the nature of addiction. There is no conceivable scheme that would legalize allowing addicts to get the amount they will quite certainly eventually want. Incarceration is harsh, but not anywhere near as harsh as having your life ruined, and then ended, by hard drugs.

One more question if I might:

Do you support the added transparency and accountability of having a drug-by-drug rollcall vote on any proposal to reduce sentencing for heroin, meth, and the other illegal drugs?

I would be fine with a drug-by-drug roll call vote, through I do not think that was how the harsh sentences were first enacted. I would also like fiscal notes and racial impact data with all criminal justice proposals, too. Do you agree that these practicalities are important in all CJ reform settings for transparency and accountability?

I am all for fiscal data -- both the costs of prison and the costs of alternatives to prison, including welfare, housing, food stamps, and healthcare. Also including the costs of any crime committed by each prisoner given early release, of which there will be plenty.

I am opposed to gathering of racial data, because it will be used as it's being used now, in the service of a campaign to focus on identity rather than behavior.

I was an AUSA for 18 years. Not once did my office seek a prison sentence, or a longer prison sentence, or make any decision whatever, because of the defendant's race. You can have that under oath.

Gee, Doug, thanks for not implying again that anyone who disagrees with you is against freedom. lol

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