TOMS RIVER, N.J. — With the number of heroin overdoses skyrocketing nationwide, some law enforcement agencies are dusting off strict, rarely used drug laws, changing investigatory techniques, and relying on technology to prosecute drug dealers for causing overdose deaths.
The aggressive change in tactics comes as more people turn to heroin because crackdowns on powerful prescription opiate painkillers have made them more expensive and inaccessible. The prescription drug OxyContin has also been reformulated to make it difficult to crush and snort, making it less desirable on the street, law enforcement officials said.
Nationwide, the number of people who said they have used heroin in the past year rose by 66 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The number of people who died of overdoses and had heroin in their system jumped 55 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rather than going after lower-level users of heroin, prosecutors want to take out dealers and members of the supply chain by connecting them and the drugs they sold to overdose deaths and charging them with laws that carry stiff penalties.
‘‘We’re going to be ruthless,’’ said prosecutor Joseph Coronato of Ocean County, N.J., where 75 overdose deaths occurred this year. ‘‘We’re looking for long-term prison sentences.’’
New Jersey prosecutors are employing the state’s little-used ‘‘strict liability for drug death’’ statute, a first-degree crime that holds dealers and producers responsible for a user’s death and has a 20-year maximum sentence.
Prosecutors nationwide are changing the way they investigate overdoses, which were once viewed as accidents. Detectives now are immediately dispatched in overdose cases. Paramedics are told to treat overdoses like crimes. Coroners are asked to order autopsies and keep forensic evidence, because proving that a death was caused solely by heroin can be hard when other opiates, drugs, or alcohol are in a person’s system.
‘‘When you go to an overdose death, treat it like a crime scene,’’ said Kerry Harvey, US attorney for eastern Kentucky. He has started prosecuting people who sold both prescription opiates and heroin under a US law that bans distribution of illicit substances and allows additional penalties for a death.
Technology is another boon to such cases. Prosecutors said cellphones have been instrumental in helping gather evidence because people leave a trail of text messages and calls.
‘‘People text their dealer and say, ‘Get me some horse,’ ’’ said Hennepin County, Minn., attorney Mike Freeman, using slang for heroin. ‘‘They text back and say, ‘Meet me at McDonald’s, I have some . . . good horse.’ The guy is dead three hours later.’’
Kathleen Bickers, an assistant US attorney in Oregon, has prosecuted more than 40 cases under the US statute. The goal, she said, is to take down as many rings on the heroin supply-chain ladder as possible.
‘‘We don’t stop at street-level dealers. We go up as many levels as we can’’ after a fatal overdose, Bickers said.
Prosecutors concede such charges are often difficult to prove, and it can be hard to trace drugs to a specific dealer. People often overdose alone, said Bergen County prosecutor John Molinelli: it is hard to trace drugs ‘‘because the person who can tell you is dead.”
Molinelli said the laws send a message to dealers that they can face more severe charges.