Ulster County has had its first ever manslaughter conviction resulting from an overdose death, in a case involving fentanyl-laced drugs. The county district attorney says this sends a strong message, yet such a conviction is just one part of the equation.
On March 19, a New Jersey man pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, admitting to selling drugs to an Ulster County resident in January last year in Paterson, New Jersey, that he knew contained fentanyl. Democratic Ulster County District Attorney Dave Clegg says Jamal Thompson’s plea also acknowledged that his actions recklessly caused the death of the Ulster County resident by overdose.
“We’re treating every case that we come upon, we’re asking our law enforcement agencies throughout the county to treat every overdose death that they come upon as a homicide,” Clegg says. “So if the evidence is there, if we can find out that the person, the drug trafficker who provides the drugs was aware of the dangerous nature of the drugs, and much of that is due to fentanyl. So if there’s a large percentage of fentanyl in the heroin, if that’s what was used and that there is some indication other people have overdosed or that the potency of it is known by the person who sold the drugs, there’s the potential for either a criminally negligent homicide charge and potentially manslaughter.”
David McNamara is executive director of Kingston-based Simadhi, a recovery center for those suffering from substance use and related disorders and addictions. He refers to Simadhi as a harm reduction facility.
“Many of the people that we work with will sell drugs in order to support their own habit, and we would prefer to get those people treatment as opposed to incarceration, which I know is also District Attorney Clegg’s approach,” McNamara says.
Last summer, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan declared a public health emergency due to spikes in fentanyl-related deaths. McNamara says the COVID-19 pandemic has increased drug use.
“I mean, we went from working with 10-15 clients a day to maybe 30-40 day. And there are a number of people who are having problems with substances for the first time in their lives. Some people are returning to use after being absent for 15 or 20 years. So we’ve seen quite an increase,” says McNamara. “One of the first things that someone is told when they go into recovery is to avoid isolation, to work together with a group to help you recover, like working with others is a really strong important part of your recovery. So obviously the pandemic kind of put a pin in that one.”
“One of the things, one of the unfortunate parts of the job that I have is speaking to the victims and, in many cases, the parent of children who’ve died from an overdose, and they are crying out for justice, how can you change the course of events that are happening,” says Clegg. “Most of the overdose deaths that have occurred in Ulster County were involving fentanyl.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times more lethal than regular heroin.
“And we know that the addiction problem has been there for a long time, but the fentanyl has made it so much more dangerous,” says Clegg. “So we’re trying to everything on both ends; one, trying to work and support people with addiction to get them out of the addiction and; two, to send out the message to those that are dealing these very dangerous drugs that will kill people that we’re going to hold them accountable and responsible.”
Ryan said that from January through July of 2020, opioid-related deaths increased 171 percent compared to the same period in 2019, leading to his public health emergency declaration.