Kentucky House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley (D-Hopkinsville) characterizes the heroin epidemic sweeping the state as a public health nightmare. Last Friday, the full House overwhelmingly endorsed Tilley’s prescription to address the drug scourge. In the process they set the stage for compromise talks with state senators who passed their own heroin legislation last month.
Tilley believes his House Bill 213 is the best plan to address heroin addiction, treatment, and penalties for trafficking. The goal of his proposal, Tilley said, is to push users and addicts toward treatment, and big-time sellers to prison. Unlike the Senate bill that punishes all dealers the same, the House plan establishes a three-tiered penalty system for dealing with small-time peddlers and larger-scale traffickers.
The House version also expands use of the life-saving drug Naloxone, which is nearly 98 percent successful at reversing the effects of an overdose. HB 213 would make Naloxone available to all first responders and authorize pharmacists to prescribe the antidote to anyone who needs it.
There are also Good Samaritan provisions in the bill that would keep the person who suffered an overdose and the person who sought medical assistance from being charged with or prosecuted for drug or paraphernalia possession.
Needle Exchange Provision
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the House plan, one that blocked the bill’s passage last year, is the needle exchange component. Rep. Tilley said HB 213 calls for an optional plan that involves local health boards and governments.
Jefferson County Democratic Rep. Tom Riner, who is a minister in Louisville, convinced the House to approve his amendment that offers addicts the option of entering a faith-based drug treatment program. But another amendment, considered hostile to the measure, came from Rep. Addia Wuchner (R-Florence) who wanted to postpone the needle exchange program and have the issue studied during the interim.
Rep. Stan Lee (R-Lexington) agreed with Wuchner that needle exchange programs need more study. He asserted that giving free needles to illicit drug users sends the wrong message, especially to youth.
A contrasting view came from Rep. Denver Butler (D-Louisville), who urged the amendment’s defeat. At one time, the former police sergeant thought needle exchange programs sounded soft on crime, but he said he now realizes the efforts are actually smart on crime.
Rep. Wuchner’s floor amendment to postpone the needle exchange idea for further study was rejected by the House on a 45 – 53 vote.
Debate Includes Personal Stories
Recent news reports indicate Kentucky experienced nearly 200 heroin overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2014. During the House floor debate several members swapped stories of personal tragedy from heroin addiction and many evoked the memory of the deceased victims in their commentary. Rep. Joni Jenkins told lawmakers about her own connection to the heroin issue, and how anyone can be at risk for opiate addiction.
The House heroin bill number – 213 – was assigned as a tribute to Jenkins’ nephew, whose birthday was February 13. That’s also the day the House voted on the measure.
The lengthy debate period concluded with an impassioned plea for passage by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tilley.
House Bill 213 was unanimously approved 98 – 0 and now heads to the Senate. The Senate passed its version in January and sent it to the House. A conference committee is expected to negotiate a compromise in the coming weeks.
Follow @ReneeKET on Twitter for updates throughout the day, and for a recap of the full day’s activities, watch Legislative Update, weeknights at 11 on KET. You can also follow the Kentucky General Assembly on KET’s Legislative Coverage app for your smartphone or tablet.