Legislators resolved to take on rising heroin abuse in La.

With heroin fatally ensnaring Hollywood stars as well as Louisiana baby boomers, legislators made a move Wednesday toward putting users in jail.

House Bill 332 would double the minimum five-year prison sentence for distribution and require time in prison for possession. Users would have to serve at least two years behind bars.

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted — without objection — to advance the measure to the full House after law enforcement officials described a harrowing heroin trend in Louisiana. Even committee members who frown upon mandatory minimum jail sentences backed the bill.

“We haven’t seen the worst if this stuff really takes root,” said state Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette. Landry, a former State Police superintendent, said he saw the effects of heroin when he worked as a policeman in the 1970s. He characterized HB332 as a preventative measure.

Louisiana tackled heroin use in the 1960s and 1970s and largely wiped it out by creating a life prison sentence for distribution of the drug. The Legislature lowered the penalties in 2001. In recent years, heroin use has once again exploded, with users partaking in more pure doses that are proving to be highly lethal.

State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said heroin used to be cut five to seven times before it hit the streets. Now, he said, the drug is as much as 31 percent pure, making it incredibly toxic.

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux told legislators that teenagers as well as baby boomers are becoming addicted. He said his office seized 6.6 grams in 2011 versus 3,695 grams in 2013. Heroin claimed five lives in 2012 and 35 last year in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Gautreaux attributed the escalation to the reduced penalties and a crackdown on prescription drug abuse. He said drug users are crossing over to an even more dangerous drug because they can’t pop pills.

“It’s easier to buy heroin on the street than it is to buy Oxycontin,” Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said.

Louisiana Sheriffs Association Executive Director Michael Renatza said law enforcement officials would rather parents visit their children in jail than at a cemetery. He said one hit can be lethal.

“If you do heroin, you’re going to do time ... This drug has no boundaries of race. This drug has no boundaries of economic strata,” Renatza said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said the majority of youths using heroin are recovering drug addicts or are just out of rehab. He said dealers continue to peddle the drug despite its danger.

“It is a serious public health issue. We hope that you as a Legislature change this law to send a message,” Moore said.

Judge Bob Morrison, of the 21st Judicial District, said it is tougher to get someone off heroin than crack cocaine. “I have seen the rise of heroin, and I can tell you it scares the heck out of me,” he said.

Morrison cautioned that he is not certain a minimum, mandatory sentence will deter people who are using heroin. However, he conceded that something needs to be done.

Robert Toale, president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said heroin users need help, not two years in jail. He said the users typically are nonviolent.

“We shouldn’t be making criminals of people who have gone from Oxycontin to heroin,” Toale said. “These people need help.”

Toale pointed to actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February of an accidental drug overdose. Bags of heroin littered Hoffman’s apartment. Hoffman was clean for more than two decades before falling back into drug use.

“We want to do something to save these precious lives — not throw them into the Department of Corrections,” Toale said.

State Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Crowville, disagreed with Toale, saying sometimes people need to be slapped on the hand the first time they are caught. Pylant said very few people enjoy their first cigarette but get hooked after continuing to smoke.

The proposal’s sponsor, state Rep. Joseph Lopinto, said heroin users are done no favors by getting decreased sentences.

Lopinto, R-Metairie, said the drug is highly addictive, requiring legislators to once again crack down on it.

“This is not going backwards. This is being smart,” he said.