Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bill to counter heroin epidemic passes

After months of discussions and building on its prior work in reducing illegal drug use, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly this evening for legislation designed to counter the state’s heroin epidemic.

Gov. Steve Beshear applauded the action and promised to sign the bill into law Thursday morning. Because it contains an emergency clause, it will take effect immediately.

"Heroin is a multi-dimensional monster and demands an array of tactics to support families, treat addicts and protect our communities," the governor said. "Senate Bill 192 is tough on traffickers who bring these deadly drugs into our communities, but compassionate toward those who report overdoses or who admit they need help for their addiction."

The measure passed without dissent in the House and later moved through the Senate on a 34-4 vote. Rep. Lynn Bechler (R-Marion) and Sen. Dorsey Ridley (D-Henderson) both supported the legislation.

“Senate Bill 192 is a major step forward in tackling what has become a crisis for both our criminal justice and healthcare systems,” said state Rep. John Tilley, the House Judiciary Committee chairman who also served as the chamber’s point person on the bill. “I’m proud that many of the proposals the House pushed for – and which have proven successful in so many other states – are now set to become law. I am also pleased our plan to set aside $10 million to begin implementation quickly is a part of this bill as well. I want to thank those in the Senate for their work in getting this passed.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who sponsored 2012’s law that reduced prescription drug abuse and who fought online sales of those drugs as Attorney General, called this year’s bill “a balanced approach that brings together better treatment and tougher sentencing. I think it will make a true difference.”

State officials say heroin overdose deaths have sky-rocketed over the last five years, with the Kentucky State Police’s crime lab reporting its workload in these cases has gone up by 400 percent during that time. A recent statewide study, meanwhile, showed that about one in 10 Kentuckians knows of someone close to them whose life has been devastated by the drug.

Crittenden County Sheriff Wayne Agent and Marion Police Chief Ray O'Neal said the epidemic has not hit locally, but fear it's only a matter of time before they start seeing heroin-related offenses.

State Rep. Joni Jenkins, who chairs the House budget subcommittee that oversees state healthcare spending, is one of those people. She lost her nephew to a heroin overdose in 2013.

“I know first-hand how easy it is for many of our loved ones to fall into this deadly cycle of addiction,” Rep. Jenkins said. “If we are to truly get a handle on this epidemic, to rescue the hundreds who die every year, treatment has to play a major role. We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this problem.”

Under Senate Bill 192, the following House-sponsored measures are now set to become law:

  • A Good Samaritan provision, which will give legal immunity to drug addicts who report an overdose victim to authorities. “All too often, overdose victims are left to die because the people they are with fear being arrested,” Rep. Tilley said. “This provision should alleviate that concern if it is done in good faith. Our first priority is getting these victims the emergency treatment they need as quickly as possible.” He noted that 25 other states already have something similar.
  • Greater use of life-saving drugs like Naloxone, which can reverse overdoses if administered in time, and Vivitrol, which has proven effective in weaning addicts off heroin. “We want to make sure these two miracle drugs and those like them are more widely used across the state,” Rep. Tilley said.
  • A re-direction of savings from 2011’s criminal-justice reforms. This money will be used to do such things as ramp up substance-abuse programs in jails and community health centers; speed up prosecutions in controlled-substance cases; and hire more social workers to help come up with alternative sentencing plans for addicts and those with mental illness caught up in the criminal justice system.
  • A local-option needle-exchange program, which would reduce the prevalence of such blood-borne diseases as HIV and Hepatitis C and the prevalence of dirty needle sticks by law enforcement and the public. Thirty-five states have something similar in place. “Just in the last few weeks in Scott County, Indiana, we have seen a stark reminder of what shared needles can do,” Rep. Tilley said. “That community is now facing HIV rates more common in sub-Saharan Africa. A needle-exchange program could have helped stopped that, and could have been an entry point to get some of these addicts into treatment. In Kentucky, communities will now have the ability to take this step if they choose.”
  • Other provisions in the law will make it easier for hospitals to refer overdose victims to substance-abuse treatment programs; to expand the availability of those types of programs within Medicaid; and to make it easier for small in-patient medical facilities to expand to treat more addicts. Physicians will also have greater authority to treat their patients who are addicted.

In addition to increasing access to treatment, Senate Bill 192 also toughens criminal penalties in those cases involving large amounts of heroin or any amount of the drug that is brought into the state.

Under the legislation approved tonight, those who sell up to two grams of heroin will continue to face a Class “D” felony, which is one to five years in prison, and be required to serve 50 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole if circumstances show the person is a commercial trafficker.

Those selling two grams up to 100 grams will now face a Class “C” felony – which is five to 10 years – as will those bringing heroin into Kentucky, no matter the amount.

Those trafficking in more than 100 grams will face a Class “B” felony, which calls for 10 to 20 years in prison.

“While I believe strongly that treatment should play a large role in bringing this epidemic under control, tougher sentencing at the higher levels is an important component as well,” Rep. Tilley said. “My hope is that we can continue the success we have seen with 2011’s criminal justice reforms and the savings – and public safety – they have provided. This bill is not the final solution, because the illegal drug market is always changing. Others in the General Assembly and I will maintain our vigilance and will be ready to act when necessary.”