As South Jersey’s drug overdose death toll continues to rise, 9th District legislators are still working to make into law a bill that was drafted last spring to target drug dealers.

Under the legislation, drafted in collaboration with Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, large-scale drug dealers, including those at the center of the heroin trade, would face lengthier sentences.

The legislation was introduced in May by Sen. Chris J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove, all R-Ocean, Atlantic, Burlington. It calls for a new classification of certain drugs that gives prosecutors the option to grade the seriousness of a drug distribution offense by the number of dosage units involved, rather than the actual weight of the drugs.  

Revisions to the narcotics provisions of the state’s distribution law would make distributing one or more ounces or 500 or more units a first degree crime; distributing one-half to less than one ounce or 100 to less than 500 units a second-degree crime; and distributing less than one-half ounce or less than 100 units a third-degree crime.  

The Senate bill is awaiting action by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Assembly version is waiting on the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.

Legislators said their bill targets large-scale drug dealers, whose criminal enterprises thrive on new drug addicts and feeding their addiction, regardless of the addict’s age.  

The legislation would require that dealers caught with a first-degree amount of pure, uncut heroin be subject to an enhanced sentence that consists of 10 years without parole.

The delegation said it seems with each passing day there is another crime, arrest, drug overdose or death occurring in the region’s communities that involves heroin.

While alarming, they said, the term “epidemic” is appropriate in describing the situation, given how the heroin trade has pervaded communities on a scale not seen before.

“While treatment must play a larger role in addressing the drug problem, so must be convicting and sentencing to longer sentences for those large-scale drug traffickers who are at the center of it all,” the legislators have said.

The legislation was unveiled last year in response to the number of drug overdose deaths in Ocean County. The death toll in 2013 reached 112 compared with 53 in 2012. So far in 2014 there have been nine fatal drug overdoses, according to Coronato.

In Atlantic County so far this year there has been one fatal drug overdose, but last year the region saw 83, according to data from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.

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