One of the world's great mysteries, if you ask us, is what a person is thinking that very first time he or she decides to snort or inject heroin.

You have to know this isn't going to end well.

And yet, New Jersey and the nation are in the midst of an epidemic of heroin use today, an epidemic that encompasses urban areas, rural places like Cape May County, quiet shore towns, bedroom communities and even the most affluent suburbs. Indeed, in Ocean County last month, nine people died as a result of heroin use over one eight-day span.

The experts note that heroin is cheap and readily available - and a popular alternative to prescription painkillers, which are often where today's heroin addicts get their first taste of opiates.

Now, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato and some South Jersey lawmakers are pushing for tougher sentences for heroin possession, raising one of the other great mysteries of life - how some officials can still think that tougher sentences will actually stem drug use.

Certainly, Coronato, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, mean well. The urge to do something is strong.

And they have a point about heroin laws. As with cocaine and other drugs, penalties are determined by weight. But a half-ounce of heroin can be cut into more doses than a half-ounce of cocaine. Coronato points to a February 2008 bust that involved 500 bags - or single-dose units - of heroin. That amounts to only a third-degree crime, which calls for a three- to five-year sentence. It would take more than 1,000 bags to reach a second-degree charge, which calls for a five- to 10-year sentence, Coronato noted.

Prosecutors are in the business of putting people in prison, and if they think that heroin-possession charges should be based on doses rather than weight, we don't see the harm.

But no one should fool themselves here. Tougher sentences have never proven to be the answer for America's drug problem.

Calling for tougher penalties is easy. Calling for more drug treatment - and finding the funds for more treatment facilities - is much harder. But it is more likely to help in the long run. The possibility of longer sentences does not deter drug dealers.

Gov. Chris Christie has sensibly called for mandatory treatment instead of prison for drug users. In the end, cutting demand is the only answer - if indeed there is one - to this problem. The money that Coronato, Rumpf and Van Drew would have the state spend on incarcerating dealers for longer sentences would be better spent funding more treatment beds.