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Combating Heroin Addiction a Top Priority for General Assembly

According to the state Office of Drug Control Policy, 230 Kentuckians died of heroin overdoses in 2013. Officials expect an even higher number when the 2014 deaths are tallied.

In newspaper articles, television sound bites, and public speeches, Kentucky’s top policymakers appear to be united around addressing heroin addiction. On the eve of the legislative session that began last week, Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway announced a pilot project to give overdose reversal kits to addicts in the state’s hardest hit areas.

The plan will give 2,000 Naloxone rescue kits to the University of Louisville Hospital, the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington, and the St. Elizabeth Healthcare system in northern Kentucky. Those hospitals will provide free kits to every treated and discharged overdose victim. Naloxone, also called Narcan, can be used as an injection or nasal spray to keep overdose victims from dying.

Kentucky’s Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory Committee will provide $105,000 to buy kits for the hospitals. The money comes from a $32 million settlement that Conway secured from two pharmaceutical companies to broaden drug treatment efforts.

Senate Fast-Tracks One Heroin Measure

Lawmakers have filed about a dozen bills in the 2015 legislative session to address the heroin epidemic. In his eighth and final State of the Commonwealth Address, Gov. Beshear didn’t endorse any specific proposal. Instead he offered key provisions that he thinks any legislation should encompass.

A proposed fix for the heroin epidemic was a top priority for the 2014 General Assembly, and its failure was one of the biggest disappointments.

During a week reserved for routine organizational matters on leadership and committee assignments, the state Senate fast-tracked a proposal to address the epidemic and sent it to the House. The chief sponsor of Senate Bill 5, Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, hails from Northern Kentucky, where heroin-related overdoses have more than tripled in the past three years. He explained the measure to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

The committee also heard compelling testimony from Alex Elswick. He hails from a loving family in an affluent suburb of Lexington, and he was a student-athlete at Centre College in Danville. Elswick said his addiction started with marijuana, then advanced to prescription narcotics, and, later, heroin.

Punishment Provisions at Issue

Ernie Lewis, the executive director of the Kentucky Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, raised concerns about a requirement in Sen. McDaniel’s bill that anyone convicted of a heroin-related offense – all of which are felonies – serve at least 50 percent of their sentence. He contends the distinction between users and dealers is often blurry because users may sell small quantities of heroin to finance their own addictions.

Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson), an attorney in Carter County, has promoted measures to expand the availability of overdose antidote Naloxone, and to protect from prosecution Good Samaritans who call 911 to save an overdose victim. But she takes exception to mandatory minimums, which she said can deprive some offenders of due leniency. Webb noted the measure would be detrimental to anyone who deserves a break, like an Iraq War veteran she represents.

Questions About the Efficacy of Treatment

Finally, the committee heard from Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester). He had a harsh message for House leaders, who he blames for the failure of last year’s heroin bill. It cleared the Senate but then it died in the House on the last day of the session.

Senate Bill 5 cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee without opposition on January 7 and advanced to the Senate floor for debate.

Sen. John Schickel (R-Union), a retired law enforcement officer in Boone County, acknowledged the heroin addiction struggle in northern Kentucky. But he argued that lawmakers took a wrong turn four years ago with criminal justice reforms that included more lenient sentencing. He also asserted that more heroin treatment options won’t cure the problem.

The Senate cleared McDaniel’s bill, 36-0, and the measure now moves to the Kentucky House. The legislative session resumes on Tuesday, February 3.

Upcoming Programming

In the meantime, I’ll talk with Kentucky Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Gerald Neal of Louisville about the session and his new role as the first African American to serve in leadership in the Kentucky General Assembly. His interview airs on Connections on Friday, January 23 at 5 p.m. on KET 2, with a repeat on January 25 at 1:30 p.m. on KET.

I’ll also talk with Kentucky’s new Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen about the Beshear Administration’s legislative priorities, health initiatives, and more. That conversation airs on Friday, January 30 at 5 p.m. on KET 2, and February 1 at 1:30 p.m. on KET.