A county coroner in Pennsylvania has started ruling heroin overdose deaths as homicides, saying drug dealers are murderers.
Lycoming County coroner Charles Kiessling Jr. had been marking overdose deaths as accidental, which he called standard practice, but said he's trying to raise awareness of a heroin epidemic that contributed to a 13 percent increase in overdose deaths in Pennsylvania in one year.
"If you chose to sell heroin, you're killing people and you're murdering people. You're just as dead from a shot of heroin as if someone puts a bullet in you," Kiessling told The Daily Item of Sunbury.
Lycoming County is about 185 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Kiessling has ruled one overdose death in 2016 as a homicide, with four others pending the results of toxicology testing.
Homicide is defined as a death caused by another person. Not all homicides are determined to be crimes, and the decision on whether charges should be filed is made by prosecutors.
Pennsylvania law allows for a charge of drug delivery resulting in death, which carries a maximum penalty of up to 40 years in prison. But Lycoming County District Attorney Eric Linhardt said the cases are difficult to prove.
"In fact, we have been able to prosecute only a handful of such cases with varying degrees of success," said Linhardt, adding that his office will "continue to aggressively prosecute these cases where we are able."
Kiessling said he consulted with the solicitor for the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, of which he is president, and determined that nothing in state law prevented him from making a determination of homicide in heroin overdose cases. He said he won't change procedure for opioids like oxycodone if the victim has a valid prescription.
Nationally, since 2000, there has been a 200 percent spike in the rate of overdose deaths from opioid pain relievers and heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A five month investigation by NBC10 found Pennsylvania has some of the highest overdose death rates in the nation especially among young men. Seven people die in the state every day from drug-related causes, the Pennsylvania Coronors Association reported.
David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, told NBC10 he'd like to see every drug overdose treated as a crime.
“No overdose should occur without an investigation,” he said.
The special investigation, Generation Addicted, premiered Monday and explored the state of the epidemic in the Philadelphia area and beyond. NBC10 spoke with drug-addicted people, families, advocates and law enforcement all looking to find better ways to address this crisis. You can explore our in-depth exclusive coverage here.
Kiessling said the heroin problem "doesn't seem to be raising enough eyebrows" in Lycoming, a largely rural county in north-central Pennsylvania that plays host to the Little League World Series each August.
"Calling these accidents is sweeping it under the rug," he said.