A recent Associated Press report by Katie Zezima, "Dealers now being charged in drug overdose deaths," details a growing law enforcement trend that bucks the traditional model of drug prosecutions.

Citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control statistics that document a meteoric rise in heroine overdose deaths, Zezima notes that many deaths are attributable to the recent reformulations of certain prescription opiates.

The reformulations make them less marketable as street drugs. With the shifting availability of drugs like OxyContin, users have turned to heroin. According to several studies, the number of people who said they have used heroin in the past year skyrocketed by 66 percent between 2007 and 2011.

Recognizing that traditional responses are often ineffectual, law enforcement has adopted the new strategy. While some may bristle at the broader implications, the basic idea has been used for years to prosecute irresponsible bar and nightclub workers who continue to serve obviously intoxicated patrons — typically after that intoxicated patron has caused a traffic crash or other injury.

While no one made either the addict or the bar patron use their respective drugs of choice, this approach acknowledges a lesson America needs to learn: Profit brings with it responsibility. Those who profit from easily abused or endangering products should be made to bear broader responsibility when those products factor into crime, disorder or injury.

Cigarette manufacturers already know where this road leads. Unfortunately, the U.S. legal system didn’t see fit to lead them down it far enough.

Every now and then the good guys do win. All automobiles now come equipped with safety belts; steel tipped lawn darts have been removed from toy store shelves.

All of this gets to a simple point: If people would just do what they ought to in the first place (be they consumer or corporate board), we wouldn’t need nearly as much government. Unfortunately, our brand of capitalism doesn’t really value ethical behavior. It certainly doesn’t reward it very well.

In the instances where it does acknowledge or celebrate good commercial citizenship, the markets are typically niche and pander to the political left.

In my hometown I see a lot of this same behavior. Pine Bluff has a population that is strongly bifurcated in terms of wealth and class. There are the vestigial remnants of the old aristocracy, and there’s the sprawling largely disenfranchised underclass. Each likes to blame the other for its troubles. The ironic thing is that they’re both right.

Over the past few decades, both ends were played against the middle (class), and the middle class fled in droves. The remaining feudal order seems to please no one.

What makes this more interesting is that the underclass is highly transient. They move from one dismal rental house to the next. They often destroy the property and leave owing rent.

The property owners have no incentive to maintain their property, and the renters have no incentive to honor their commitments. The result is a town with one dreadful rental ghetto after another.

Reinforcing this poisoned dynamic, the city council lacks the will to rein in property owner abuses. Quite naturally, the police are called in to attend the problems caused by the moving horde.

The police are frustrated by this because they are expected to fix a problem over which they have no real power. This too is simple. If a neighborhood was "bad" 40 years ago and it’s still "bad" today — with all new residents — it’s not just the people, it’s the place. The dominant mode of land use determines the character of the neighborhood.

Until the local government recognizes this rather basic fact, not much will change. Change is hard. Change means somebody’s pockets will be thinner. Change means the city council will have to learn some discipline. Change means setting and holding renters to higher expectations. Hard as all that may be, it’s better than continually driving the governmental lawn dart into the forehead of the community.


Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com