(Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing series on opioid abuse, “Curing Our Coast,” News Editor Bryan Russo discussed with Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby the prosecution side of the situation.)
SNOW HILL — It’s Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby’s job to put bad guys in jail. He’s good at it, and he has built a reputation in his six years in the position as a proactive and effective professional.
Yet the one issue that keeps Oglesby up at night, both as a professional and as a father, is the heroin epidemic that is growing in the region and across the nation.
Heroin is now claiming the lives of almost 30,000 Americans per year, and while law enforcement officials and public health treatment centers are simultaneously ramping up their respective efforts to combat this epidemic, Oglesby has spent enough time on the front lines of this issue to know that there is no easy fix when it comes to heroin.
Oglesby, a former Assistant State’s Attorney in Wicomico County for 10 years and a Deputy State’s Attorney in Caroline County for two years, is a member of the Worcester County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council. Oglesby, who was elected to Worcester County’s top prosecutor post in 2010, sat down with The Dispatch this week to talk about the realities of a real threat to the local community’s youth and families.
Q: Recently, while speaking at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, President Barack Obama said “for too long, we have viewed the problem of drug abuse through the lens of the criminal justice system.” In the years that I have been covering the opiate addiction, the conversation and the messaging coming from law enforcement officials and governmental agencies is finally starting to mirror what many treatment centers, former addicts, and families that have been struggling through this have been saying for years. And that’s, “you can’t just throw people in jail and expect heroin addiction to remedy itself.” So, with all of that said, how significant do you the think the alignment of these viewpoints on all sides of the issue?
A: From the perspective of prosecution, we certainly still have a job to do. Whether it was cocaine or heroin or any crime that we deal with, the philosophy of this office is that if we hold the person accountable regarding their criminal conduct, that should give the court the tools to address the functions of sentencing. So, yes punishment is important.
Deterrence is very important, and, of course, rehabilitation is critical when it comes to drug addiction and the treatment of those who, for a very large part of their life, have lost control. We try to give the court the appropriate tools, and sometimes that’s years of incarceration, or years hanging over someone’s head, or supervision through probation, whether it be standard probation or drug court.
Q: People are starting to realize that there is a big problem with heroin addiction. The numbers show it, the statistics show it and the headlines show it. But for you, in this office, talk about the proliferation of heroin addiction and heroin related cases in your time here in Worcester County.
A: It has to go back some to my time in Wicomico County and Caroline County as well. During the early parts of my career, cocaine was the drug that was being prosecuted that enforcement was really focused on. Ninety percent of my cases as a felony drug prosecutor were cocaine cases. When I got to Caroline County, and served as Deputy State’s Attorney there, I was still doing drug cases, but there was a switch. I started to see these prescription pill cases.
With those cases came this very obvious change in the people I was prosecuting because there was no way to pigeonhole or predict what kind of people I would be prosecuting on any given day. It could be a 65-year-old grandmother who was selling her pills or an 18-year-old kid from any part of the Eastern Shore of Maryland who would be involved. So, race, gender, and economic status was out the window. The dynamics and the predictability of the cases I was getting was completely gone, which meant that the enforcement had a major issue as well, because there wasn’t the ability to kind of know where to look.
Q: That’s a narrative that you hear in regards to heroin addiction as that trend moved from prescription pills to heroin. Tell me how law enforcement as well as the prosecution side have evolved and adapted to that sea change in drug habits or drug usage.
A: With cocaine, there was generally a way to identify a drug dealer, and sort of put them into a typical definition and handle that person appropriately, based on that definition. Heroin is such a social drug that you are finding that the dealers of heroin are often also users and addicts. Oftentimes, the heroin that they are often providing or dealing is to their friends and their own social circle of fellow users, and maybe most of the money was pulled together and the guy we are prosecuting is the one who just happened to have the connection in lower Delaware, or Baltimore, or wherever they were getting the heroin.
So, it’s getting harder for the court to treat someone as a dealer for profit, where you can say, we are going to sanction you for the crimes that you have committed because you are spreading poison. It’s harder when that person is also addicted to the poison and is really more of a conduit for the distribution of the drugs rather than the source of making money.
Q: With this proliferation, we’ve also seen a change in approach. Last week, in a story that Managing Editor Shawn Soper did, there was the decision to convict a 26-year-old Berlin man of manslaughter for supplying the heroin that led to another man’s overdose death. You told him, “We’re certainly going to continue to pursue these cases as the heroin epidemic comes to the forefront. The Sheriff’s Office and allied law enforcement agencies have generated their own internal policy or protocol with the goal of identifying the source, in this case heroin.” Tell me a little bit more about those internal policies and protocols moving forward. Is this the new normal? Should dealers of heroin expect to be charged if their clients die?
A: If we can determine and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they in fact were the source of heroin and someone died because of it, if the facts present themselves the way they did in the case of Mr. Skinkle, to convince me that manslaughter is as viable charge, then yes.
We can talk about the function of sentencing and the purpose of prosecution, and I’ve always been a firm believer in being as proactive as possible. There are certain things that a prosecutor can’t do or control because we are generally reactive: someone gets charged with something and we follow through. But, there is one way that we can be proactive and that’s by being a presence and a known entity in the community so that people understand if you are going to engage in a particular activity, whether that’s drunk driving or dealing heroin, they can expect a particular result in Worcester County.
Whether it’s one person or 100 people is immaterial to me, but if someone is thinking, ‘if I sell this heroin and someone dies because of it, I’m facing a very, very real consequence to me,’ and they decide not to do it because of that, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
Q: People I’ve spoken with in the last week agree that throwing the book at the dealer is an appropriate move. But, tell me a bit about the focus toward treating addicts and junkies differently. Obama’s new drug czar, Michael Botticelli, who is a recovering alcoholic himself, has been pushing to change the narrative a bit from calling them criminal junkies and addicts to someone who has opiate disease disorder, or simply, someone battling a disease. We know prosecution and enforcement are going to continue to intensify, but tell me how the treatment has changed for the person with the disease?
A: It’s a different animal. We understand that treatment is critical, otherwise it’s a revolving door. We will continue to say it, ‘we cannot prosecute and arrest our way out of this issue.’ So, unless we want to see the same people, either committing crimes, or find them dead on the floor, we have to address their addiction, and address what continues to make them addicts, and try to give them a structure to try and help them be successful in their sobriety.
But, some people don’t want to be sober, they are happy to be high and understand that they could be dead tonight. So, they need someone to hold their hand or a hammer over their head, and that’s what the [drug] court system does. Mandatory treatment or supervision, or we will simply put you in a place where we think you’ll be safe until you are ready to get into the program. But, Bryan, there are people who don’t want help and will never be open to the possibility of help, and there’s probably nothing we can do for those people.
Q: That feeling of helplessness is something that I’ve heard from all parties I’ve spoken with when it comes to this drug. It’s now cheaper than ever before, whereas the party drugs like cocaine, were more of a high-priced, white collar clientele, but as you mentioned, heroin is affordable and it does not discriminate with whom it impacts. Talk about the difficulties in battling a drug that is so widespread, so cheap and so powerful?
A: Heroin in the ‘60’s was a much different drug than we are seeing today. The purity was considerably lower, which required cooking it up and injecting it if you wanted to get high. Now, because the purity has increased, it is possible to get that high with snorting [the drug]. When you take away the stigma and the dangers of using a syringe, it opens the door to a group of new users that previously didn’t exist.
It cannot be overstated how dangerous it is because everybody’s physical makeup is going to react differently to a substance. You do not know if the heroin that you are taking today is the heroin that you will be taking tomorrow, or if the heroin you are taking today, what the purity is, or if it has fentanyl in it, or if it’s scrambled because you don’t know. It may have the same stamp on the packaging, but you don’t know.
That’s what makes this drug so dangerous, because it kills people. Yes, other drugs kill people, but not with the frequency or the severity we are seeing with heroin.
Q: Our nation’s war on drugs dates back to the early ‘70s when Richard Nixon was President. More than a trillion dollars have been spent fighting the war on drugs. Tens of millions have been arrested, millions have been incarcerated and countless families have been savaged by drug abuse and addiction, but the fact of the matter is, Americans use more drugs than any other country. According to statistical data from the National Survey on Drug Use in America, one in 12 people over the age of 12 have admitted to doing illicit drugs in the past month. So, perhaps philosophically, how do we remedy this epidemic, or any drug epidemic, without a real sea change in our own perceptions or habits as people?
A: I think you just explained the answer, and that’s a real change in the perception. It seems to me that there has been a success in the anti-smoking campaigns, and even though it took a long time, there is a very real change in perception about nicotine and smoking cigarettes. So, to answer your question, it’s not me in court putting bad guys or drug dealers in jail that will ultimately make the biggest impact on the problem and this issue.
It will be education. I try to scare my kids every chance I get about this drug because I see firsthand just how dangerous it is. I explain to them that they are not indestructible and they are not superman and superwoman and it can happen to them. It can happen to anyone.
(To listen to the entire conversation, click online to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)