A bill awaiting the governor's signature would make it easier to prosecute people who sell drugs that lead to an overdose death. 

Jim O'Neill is Forsyth County's district attorney. When it comes to opioids, he's best known as  co-founder of a local bipartisan program that allows some drug offenders to have their felony charges dropped if they meet certain treatment criteria. 

O'Neill spoke with WFDD's Paul Garber about the challenges involved when opioid cases come before him, whether it's the dealer or the addict. He says the “Death by Distribution” measure would help in efforts to put dealers behind bars.

If signed, it would drop the requirement that prosecutors prove malice, which is difficult to prove in drug cases. In a tradeoff, convicted offenders would serve less jail time.

“The prosecutors across the state - Republicans, Democrats, everybody -  agreed this was a good fix to the statute because it allows us to hold drug dealers responsible,” O'Neill says. “This makes it easier for law enforcement and prosecution to go after the drug dealers.”

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 71 people died in Forsyth County of unintentional opioid overdoses in 2017.

But prosecuting the drug dealers involved has been difficult. Sometimes that's because witnesses can be difficult to get to testify as they may also be addicts themselves, or because juries tend to look at the deaths as self-inflicted, O'Neill adds.

The state also has what's called a Good Samaritan law,  which offers legal cover to a person who calls to report an overdose. Critics of the “Death by Distribution” bill have argued that if you send a message you're going to go hard after the dealers, you may deter those calls that could save someone's life.

“House Bill 474 speaks to the Samaritan protection,” he says. “That has been recognized...as still the law.”

O'Neill, a Republican, worked with former Forsyth Clerk of Court Susan Frye, a Democrat, to start a program that provides incentives to help heroin, opioid and alcohol abusers get treatment and stay out of jail.

“The program we developed is called DATA, or the District Attorney's Treatment Alternative,” he says.

It targets jail inmates who want to get clean. The initiative is the first of its kind in the state, but other counties are watching.

“The carrot that I use is that if they complete the program and are successful, we're going to dismiss or reduce the felony charges against them, and that is a real incentive for people to be drug free and then start off with a clean slate,” he says.

A key part of the program is the use of Vivitrol, a non-narcotic drug that blocks people from getting high off heroin or opioids.

“One hundred percent of the people that are participating in our program after one year are testing clean, they are working, and have not committed any new offenses,” he says. “So we are astonished at the results we've seen.” 

O'Neill ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2016, losing to Buck Newton in the Republican primary. O'Neill is making another run for the office in 2020.

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