The aggressive change in tactics comes as more people turn to heroin because of crackdowns on powerful prescription opiate painkillers that make them more expensive and inaccessible. The popular 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 skyrocketed 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 present in their system jumped 55 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rather than going after lower-level users of heroin, prosecutors are looking 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 have occurred this year. "We're looking for long-term prison sentences."
Coronato and other 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.
He and other prosecutors nationwide are changing the way they investigate overdoses, which were once looked upon as accidents. Detectives are being immediately dispatched when word of an overdose comes in. Paramedics are being told to treat overdoses like crimes. And coroners are being asked to order autopsies and preserve forensic evidence, as proving that a death was caused solely by heroin can be difficult when other opiates, drugs or alcohol are present in a person's system.
"When you go to an overdose death, treat it like a crime scene. Don't treat it like an accident," said Kerry Harvey, the U.S. attorney for eastern Kentucky. He has started prosecuting people who sold both prescription opiates and heroin under a federal law that prohibits the 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 enough evidence because people leave behind 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 really good horse.' The guy is dead three hours later."
Kathleen Bickers, an assistant U.S. attorney in Oregon, has prosecuted more than 40 cases under the federal 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 back to a specific dealer. People often overdose alone, said Bergen County, N.J., prosecutor John Molinelli, and it's hard to trace the drugs "because the person who can tell you is dead," he said.
Molinelli charged two people under the New Jersey law in June and said he plans to use it more because of changes in technology and the high number of overdoses in the county. During the first half of 2013, 58 people died of overdoses in Bergen County, the same number as for all of 2012. The laws, he said, send a message to dealers that they can face more severe charges.
Some wonder whether the enforcement efforts are actually going to curtail drug sales. Douglas Husak, a lawyer and professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, said he doesn't think the stricter enforcement will stop people from dealing heroin.
"Heroin distributors are not murderers, and they're not murderers when their customers die from an overdose," said Husak, who has called for decriminalizing drugs.
In New Jersey, officials say heroin has become a scourge across the entire state, prompting Gov. Chris Christie to create a task force on heroin and other opiates. Forty-five percent of the primary drug treatment admissions in 2011 were for heroin, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Mariann Farino's son Raymond died of a heroin overdose in January. Coronato's office charged the man they say sold her son heroin in June.
"Did he stick the needle in my son's arm? No. Did he sell him stuff that was crazy? Yes," she said. "Should he be held partially responsible? Yes."