Pennsylvania crime and punishment: the disturbing return of heroin

Heroin use is exploding across the nation and in Pennsylvania, where punishment for related crimes is steep.

The stunning return of heroin use as a national health problem has been well reported in the media. Unfortunately, Pennsylvanians are not immune to the scourge of heroin. According to LancasterOnline, the heroin trade is brisk and lucrative in the Poconos, for example.

Opioid addiction

A poppy-based opioid, heroin is chemically related to powerfully addictive prescription pain medications like hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), codeine, morphine, oxycodone (such as OxyContin or Percocet) and more.

Not surprisingly, people who become addicted to opioid prescription drugs often transition to heroin as a cheaper, easier-to-obtain alternative. LancasterOnline cites Stroud Regional Police Capt. Brian Kimmins as estimating that "95 percent of the heroin addicts he's interviewed started out as prescription painkiller addicts."

Opioids in the body attach to specific receptors in the brain and other parts of the body to reduce pain perception, but for some persons, opioids also produce an addictive euphoria. Once addicted, people progress to other methods of ingestion that take effect more quickly like snorting, smoking or injecting.

The science behind heroin and its highly addictive properties are well understood. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency, provides heroin facts online. NIDA reports that abuse of heroin can cause death, fetal death, abscesses, liver disease, respiratory distress, heart-lining and valve infection, gastrointestinal cramps and more.

Injecting heroin also puts users at risk of HIV and hepatitis from sharing used needles, as well as collapsing veins.

Heroin crimes

In addition to the health risks of heroin, of course, is the problem that it is a drug crime to possess, create, distribute, traffic or sell heroin, putting anyone in contact with it at risk of criminal prosecution.

In fact, the LancasterOnline article attributes to Monroe County Probation Office Director Steve Houloose the comment that, "Morphine-based drug abusers are the most common inmates in local and state prisons" because the physical addiction is more powerful than the fear of imprisonment.

Both federal and Pennsylvania law establish heroin-related crimes and the corresponding punishments can be extremely severe, depending on the particular offense and defendant. Penalties may include long prison sentences (even life), expensive fines, probation and more, depending on the defendant's criminal history, the circumstances and whether a firearm violation was involved.

The importance of skilled legal counsel

The bottom line is that anyone in Pennsylvania investigated for or accused of a drug crime related to heroin (or any other illegal substance) should seek legal representation as early in the process as possible, so the criminal defense attorney can monitor the government's action on the case with an eye to protecting the defendant's constitutional and legal rights, and to begin to build a vigorous defense.

In particular, when a Pennsylvania defendant has a problem with heroin addiction and meets certain other criteria, he or she may be appropriate for the voluntary Adult Drug Court in the local county court system. Through this program, a defendant may be able to have charges dropped after successful completion of a treatment program that includes ongoing drug testing, community service, payment of costs and aftercare.

Keywords: Pennsylvania, punishment, heroin, opioid, addiction, prescription painkiller, pain medication, drug crime, drug court, treatment