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Are Felony Drug Charges Helping Deter Opioid Use in Pennsylvania?

Drug-related deaths and overdoses are on the rise across the country, and Pennsylvania is one of the states hit the hardest by the opioid crisis. In fact, earlier this year, the state declared the epidemic a state of emergency, indicating just how serious the problem has become here.

One of the tools state officials are using to attempt to control the opioid issue is charging those accused of drug crimes with felonies rather than misdemeanors. In fact, one case in 2017 resulted in a pair of drug suppliers receiving charges of drug delivery resulting in death — the first time that charge was ever filed in Elk County. There were 205 total drug delivery resulting in death charges in Pennsylvania in 2017, more than double the number of 2016. For comparison, that number was just 15 in 2013 across the whole state.

Is this strategy working?

This specific felony charge has exploded in terms of its usage frequency over the last five years, and it has become a tactic commonly used by law enforcement to more aggressively pursue and punish those accused of drug crimes. But is it actually helpful in curbing the use and distribution of opioids? So far, there’s little evidence of that.

There are more people lining the jail cells for drug offenses now than there were several years ago, but drug use rates do not seem to be going down. In 2017, there were 5,456 total drug-related overdose deaths in the state, up 18 percent from what had been a record figure in 2016.

Changes to Pennsylvania’s criminal code in 2011 made it easier for prosecutors to secure convictions in drug cases and secure significant jail time for offenders. The maximum penalty is 40 years for drug delivery resulting in death. Most defendants without a prior conviction will get anywhere from four to 10 years.

The state (and the nation) still has a lot of soul-searching to do about the best ways to deal with drug crimes. Until that happens, expect the state to do everything it can to put people behind bars for opioid-related offenses.

For the guidance and advice you need when facing drug charges, speak with skilled Reading criminal defense attorney David R. Eshelman.


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