DEA’s “Innovative” Strategy in New Orleans Encourages Ever-Harsher Prosecutions

    On April 16, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched its latest punishment-driven, treatment-inflected response to the opioid-involved overdose crisis in New Orleans (NOLA) and two surrounding Louisiana parishes.

    Its “360 Strategy” takes a “three-pronged approach” that includes targeting people who sell drugs, cracking down on opioid prescription practices, and involving community outreach organizations to provide “support for building drug-free communities.” In this way, it aims to “attack the heroin and prescription drug epidemic at every level,” according to DEA Special Agent Charge Brad L. Byerley in a press release.

    Joining 15 other jurisdictions that have already rolled out the 360 Strategy pilot program, DEA–NOLA hopes to “address this growing health problem and the violent drug trafficking it breeds” through, among other things, prevention education and treatment.

    “I’m so thankful that you all have come aboard to the conversation,” said Dr. Rochelle Head-Dunham, the executive director of Metropolitan Human Services District/Greater New Orleans Area Behavioral Health Services, gesturing to law enforcement officials standing behind her at the press conference held at New Orleans’ City Hall.

    Head-Dunham clarifies that “this is a substance use disorder problem manifested in the use of one drug, which is opioids. So we have to be clear that we have to address it broadly if we are going to take care of the problems with that one drug.” 

    According to the 360 Strategy website, this looks like “strengthening community organizations best positioned to provide long-term help and support for building drug-free communities,” an approach which has been characterized by the International Drug Policy Consortium as “devastating for communities worldwide.” The programmatic specifics were not detailed on the website nor during the press conference. The DEA public information officer declined to comment.

    Although law enforcement agencies nationwide have increasingly taken up the buzzword-y language of describing opioid use and addiction as “a public health issue,” as Katal Center’s Health and Harm Reduction program director Keith Brown has pointed out, their bottom line is still criminalizing people.

    James Pohlmann, the sheriff of St. Bernard—one of the participating parishes—reassured press conference attendees that, just because he supports addiction treatment, “I’m not saying I’m soft on crime in St. Bernard and I know my fellow law enforcement guys are not soft on crime.”

    And this is no surprise: Until 2018, Louisiana led the nation—and the world, if the state were considered a country—in incarcerating the most people per capita. This, in part, can be attributed to harsh drug enforcement. In 2017, almost 24,516 arrests were made for drug-related offenses by law enforcement officers in Louisiana, according to the FBI. Black people constituted 55 percent of those arrested, even though they make up only around a third of the population.

    “Let’s face it: Addicts, if we can capture them before they are even introduced into the criminal justice system, then that means there is going to be more space for who?” said Sheriff Pohlmann. “The guys who are really breaking the law: Drug dealers!”

    At the press conference, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Peter Strasser voiced a similar sentiment. “At this point, every drug dealer knows that heroin and fentanyl are killing hundreds if not thousands of people a year. Accordingly, we have focused on prosecuting those drug dealers responsible for those overdose deaths.”

    As past Filter reporting has shown, the defendants of these drug-induced homicide charges tend to use drugs themselves and are selling opioids to support their own use. Although Strasser notes that his office will supposedly target “dealers who are selling the highest quantities of the most dangerous substance and making the most money doing so,” he announced that the US Attorney’s office “will continue to seek the highest penalties and sentences available for those who prey on addicts by selling them those deadly substances.”

    Sheriff Pohlmann, whose son died of a heroin overdose in 2016, agreed. “You’ve got to have strict sentencing guidelines for drug dealers.”

    In Louisiana, a drug-induced homicide (DIH) conviction can carry a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In 2016, there were 34 news reports of DIH prosecution charges across the state, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. They included Jarrett McClasland, a 27-year-old from outside Baton Rouge who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for providing his girlfriend with the heroin that was one of a number of drugs involved in her death.

    In addition to ramping up punishments for drug distribution charges, US Attorney Strasser adds, “It is further priority for our office to prosecute the doctors, and other medical professionals, and pharmacies for perverting the cycle of addiction with unlawful prescribing practices.”

    This is part of the 360 Strategy’s broad crackdown on opioid prescription practices. Brad L. Byerley, Special Agent In-Charge of the DEA’s New Orleans field division, which represents Louisiana, Mississsipi, Arkansas, and Alabama, said that his agency will “talk [with prescribers] about the overprescribing of drugs, drug abuse, and how we can make our community safe again.” He also referred to the widely-cited SAMHSA statistic “that nearly 80 percent of all heroin users first had an encounter with painkillers”—though he then, unjustifiably, drew a direct causal relationship, saying “that’s what led to their addiction.”

    It should be noted that that same study found that the vast majority of people who use pharmaceutical opioids without a prescription do not end up using heroin.

    Bryerley described the DEA’s 360 Strategy as an example of the agency’s skill at “find[ing] new and innovative ways” to respond to opioid use. But Todd Juluke, a division counselor at the New Orleans  District Attorney’s office who has been incarcerated for selling cocaine, notes that this initiative is just the same old drug-war tactics. In comments on the press conference’s Facebook Live video stream, Juluke wrote: “360 goes back to starting point, 180 is change.”

    What happened informally after the press conference could suggest what a real “180” might look like when it comes to engaging people who use drugs.

    “After the press cleared out, we set up from the trunk of a car in the park across from City Hall,” wrote members of Trystereo, a southeastern Louisiana harm reduction collective, in an email to Filter. “[We] met with people there who asked us for naloxone to save lives, syringes to keep safe from infections, and biohazard bins to act as responsible and considerate neighbors. We’ll still be available in communities of people who use drugs no matter what, and our highest hope is that those communities receive the support they need to survive and thrive. But we know we’ll lose some of the people we love to incarceration, overdose, and death because of sustained policing.”

    Photograph: DEA New Orleans via Twitter

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