The overdose death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman has drawn attention to the increasing prevalence of heroin. In North Carolina, law enforcement officials have noted a resurgence of heroin use as prescription pain killers became more difficult to access and thus more costly. With a shift to cheaper heroin the number of overdose deaths in the state spiked to 148 in 2012.
Law enforcement officials have seized larger amounts of heroin across the state. It is unlawful to possess heroin and a North Carolina drug possession conviction carries hefty penalties. More than four grams could trigger serious trafficking charges. A prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual possessed heroin and knew that what he or she possessed was heroin. Usually lab analysis will suffice to prove a substance is heroin. Packaging may indicate that an individual knew what the substance was.
The steep penalties associated with heroin possession often have meant that friends would not report an overdose for fear of prosecution. In an Atlanta case, a young man died as his friends drove around hoping he would regain consciousness. They did not want to call 911, because they were scared they would be arrested and charged with drug use.
Immunity from prosecution
About a year ago, a new Good Samaritan law went into effect. The North Carolina law provides immunity from prosecution for certain offenses when a person seeks help for someone suffering an overdose. Both the person reporting the overdose and the person suffering the overdose are immune from prosecution for the following offenses:
- Misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance
- Felony possession of less than one gram of cocaine
- Felony possession of less than one gram of heroin
- Possession of drug paraphernalia charges
Immunity is limited, so in some cases charges could still be brought. For example, if an assault occurred prior to acquaintances seeking help. A prosecution for possessing prescription pills like Vicodin or Oxycontin might also be possible depending on quantity.
Another law that went into effect at the same time provides access to Naloxone, a type of antidote to a heroin overdose. Robert Childs, the executive director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, said that his group had documented reversals of overdoses thanks to Naloxone.
As awareness of the new law grows there may be fewer accidental overdose deaths in the state. With any new law it takes awhile to see the practical effects. Police may still make an arrest and prosecutors may bring charges in borderline cases. The statute defines drug-related overdose, but there could be differences of opinion about what qualifies as mania or extreme physical illness.
Even a criminal charge can cloud your record and come up in a job search or when looking for new housing. If you have been charged with a drug crime, you need a strong defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney can assist in obtaining the best possible outcome after discussing the details of your case.