Life in Prison For Heroin Addiction?

By Zachary Siegel 02/18/16

In the Midwest and the South, the mandatory life sentence of adults found guilty of distributing heroin is a grave injustice to those living with addiction.

In The South, You Get Life in Prison for Heroin Addiction
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Last month, The Fix covered cases in which people are charged with drug-induced homicide in the event of an overdose. The outmoded 1980s drug-induced homicide statute aims to curtail illicit drug sales, but what it actually does is charge drug users for the death of their friends and lovers, as if witnessing someone close to you dying isn’t traumatic enough. 

Such is the case of 27-year-old Jarret McCasland, who was recently found guilty for injecting his girlfriend with a fatal dose of heroin. He is now facing a maximum life sentence for second-degree murder, handed to him by Lousiana District Judge Don Johnson. 

Moments before the judge read the sentence, McCasland made the following statement before the court: "I am an innocent person. Y'all (the prosecutors) had to lie to get a conviction. I believe in Jesus. I love my God. I'm coming home to see my family." 

McCasland’s father, Douglas McCasland, said. "He's not a dealer, never was a dealer. It's amazing how the prosecutors can put a handle on somebody with no evidence." 

However, prosecutors found instances of drug dealing on McCasland’s phone. They then pointed to his “long history of drug dealing and an arrest in Ascension Parish for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.” 

Prosecutors said that McCasland’s cell phone records show he "overtly sold heroin to someone after Cardenas died." District Attorney Hillar Moore said this is a clear cut case and McCasland should be locked up for life.  

Is it that cut and dry? What the prosecutors avoid to address is the quantities of these drug sales. Someone like McCasland, who undoubtedly is addicted to heroin, and is nursing a gigantic habit of his own, is likely selling small amounts just to get his own fix. Rarely is the drug-induced homicide statute invoked on anyone but low-level drug dealers such as McCasland. 

McCasland's attorney, J. Rodney Messina, said Louisiana's law, which calls for a mandatory life sentence for adults found guilty of distributing heroin, is excessive, unjust, and needs to be re-evaluated. 

"There are two consenting adults who were using drugs,” said Messina, “this thing could have flip-flopped. He could have been the one that's six feet under, and then they would be prosecuting Miss Cardenas." 

Kathie Kane-Willis is a drug policy reformist at Roosevelt University and argues that drug-induced homicide laws are draconian relics of the '80s tough on crime era. Kane-Willis told The Fix, “It may seem like a kinder gentler war on drugs and perhaps for folks in urban areas that is the case. In the Midwest and the South that is not the case at all, in fact we are seeing really disturbing trends in the ways that these cases are being handled.” 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.