One of the indicators of the severity of the heroin problem in the region comes in the form of court statistics as more area residents find themselves facing criminal charges stemming from their substance abuse.
St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Jerrod Mahurin will have served in that position for six years come January, and has seen firsthand the increase in prosecutions for drug-related charges.
“I was talking to a D.E.A. agent out of St. Louis about three years ago,” Mahurin said. “He told me that at that time it was easier to obtain heroin than it was to obtain marijuana. There was just such an influx of it, with a lot of it coming from Mexico. Kansas City is a hub so when it hits, it spreads.”
Mahurin said one reasons for the Parkland’s heroin influx is the geographic location, being only a few hours from hubs like Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago. He said prosecuting heroin distributors and users is a complicated issue, with the drug being treated the same as other controlled substances in the eyes of the law.
“It’s an epidemic,” he said, “... it’s getting worse. Unfortunately, [heroin] is treated the same as methamphetamine or marijuana in amounts greater than 35 grams. But once you get to that level —is it really the same? I don’t think it is.
“Meth is bad, (and) while marijuana probably has the same impact as alcohol, I don’t think there’s ever been an overdose death on marijuana. And you typically don’t see the same effects, with the way heroin hurts people and their families.”
Because heroin charges are indistinguishable from other drug charges, it’s difficult to obtain accurate numbers of individuals charged related to heroin distribution or possession. But even in the last two years the amount of over all drug charges have clearly increased.
In 2015 there were 95 individual cases in which a defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance in St. Francois County. In 2016 that number jumped to 218 cases. Drug distribution or attempted distribution cases also increased from 29 in 2015 to 48 in 2016.
While these cases include all possession charges for drugs like marijuana and methamphetamine, the numbers seem to line up with the amount of heroin seized in Missouri in those years. According to Missouri State Highway Patrol Division of Drug and Crime control Spokesperson Shawn Griggs, 5,178 grams of heroin was seized in 2015. In 2016, that amount skyrocketed to 41,473 grams.
“I don’t know what to do at this point to try and curb it,” Mahurin said. “We give a lot stiffer sentences around here than most other counties, and I thought at one point that was starting to curb the problem. I don’t know if it still is or not, but I don’t think that’s what people are thinking about when they’re doing heroin — the amount of time they could spend in prison.”
Mahurin said there must be consequences for individuals found to be possessing heroin, but added that the real targets for law enforcement should be those who distribute the drug to the user.
“The people that are selling the drugs are preying on people,” he said. “They’re the ones that we have to nail. The users are addicted — yes, there has to be some kind of punishment for that, but the sellers are the ones that we have to nail. And we have to make sure the prison sentences are getting them off the streets.”
Despite working to put away the dealers and traffickers, Mahurin said there seems to be no shortage of suppliers.
“There’s always going to be more,” he said. “It’s an ongoing problem that we’re always going to have to deal with. But that’s who we have to go after first and foremost — the large distributors. They’re the people that are picking the users apart.”
The problem is not a simple one. Throwing every heroin user in jail doesn’t seem to be the correct method to truly provide a lasting solution for the region. Mahurin said the solution could require changing the way we think about those suffering from substance abuse.
“I think we need to have more alternatives for those people,” he said. “Other countries have taken the mindset that people who use drugs have a mental health disorder. Maybe that’s a route we could go. There has to be other programs available to get these people clean.”
There is a limited amount of control county courts have over how they approach the problem. Mahurin reemphasized the need to take down distributors while making sure that people who slip up and fall into substance abuse are not permanently institutionalized.
“Everybody has their own philosophy on how cases need to be disposed of,” he said. “Here we have a drug court program. What I try to use that for is people who are addicted and that need help getting off of a substance, whatever that may be. I never put people in drug court that (are known to be dealers).
“There are times where you look at people who are addicted to meth or heroin and they may be young people, in high school or even younger. You don’t want to ruin their life. You want to say, ‘Look, you made some mistakes. Let's get you on the right road, but you’re going to have to work to get on the right road now.’”
Heroin causes other, less statistically apparent strains on the county court system. Mahurin said individuals charged for heroin possession tend to display a greater propensity for violence, leading to assault or other violent charges. In addition, when a user dies by overdose, if the supplier of the drugs can be proven to have provided the heroin that caused the death they can face murder or manslaughter charges.
Mahurin said the problem cannot be solved by the court system, but that the legal system must be part of a larger attitude of denunciation of heroin usage and a dedication to work within the community to help those who have gotten mixed up with drugs such as heroin.
“For some people now I think it’s become almost socially acceptable,” he said. “They’ll tell their friends to just be careful with it. Years ago people would just say, ‘Get off that stuff.’ That doesn’t seem to be the case now.
“It’s got to start with educating in schools and at home, and there’s got to be people who are trying to help in the community as well. Once we get those things together we might have a shot at stopping it before we lose a whole lot more people, or a whole lot more people get hooked.”