Charging Heroin Dealers With Homicide A Common Practice In Pennsylvania

By Keri Blakinger 01/30/19

Pennsylvania leads the nation with more than 500 drug-induced homicide charges filed.

heroin dealer being arrested for drug-induced homicide

In Lancaster County, deep in the heart of Amish country, authorities have gone after more drug-induced homicide charges than any other place in the nation, according to figures from Mission LISA, a data aggregation project.

Last year alone, prosecutors in the southeast Pennsylvania county filed roughly 60 such charges, more than the 37 in nearby Bucks County or the 35 in York County. Four of the most prosecution-prone counties were in the Keystone State, which led the nation with more than 500 drug-induced homicide charges filed.

It’s a controversial practice, often condemned by harm reduction advocates. But Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman swears the charge—levied against dealers who sell fatal doses of the drug—is working. 

"I don't think this is a magic bullet that's going to end the opioid crisis, but is it part of the solution?” he told WITF. “I'm absolutely convinced it is, and there's just something about being held accountable."

By way of example, Stedman highlighted an interaction with one man accused of selling drugs. "One guy in particular, they arrest him, he's a long-time heroin dealer, and he was arrested for cocaine. They said, what are you doing? You're a long-time heroin dealer. And he said, look, message received. I'm not catching a body in Lancaster County." 

But advocates decry the practice, as Drug Policy Alliance attorney Lindsay LaSalle explained to the PA Post in 2018.

“We see this kind of flip,” she said, “where you have the compassion for the person who used but you want to throw the hammer at the person who sold. And this is an absolutely false dichotomy. The distinction between user and seller is often patently false.”

The high numbers in Lancaster County come amid a long-term increase in drug-related homicide charges, according to the Mission LISA data.

Going all the way back to 1975, the organization’s data set accounts for 2,741 drug-induced homicide charges—but the figures show a sharp uptick starting around 2010. In that year, there were 67 such charges filed across the nation; by 2015 that figure rose to 300.

In 2016, it peaked at just over 660, though since then has fallen to under 400.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.