Herald-Leader Editorial

Bill would help curb heroin deaths; Consider also allowing needle exchanges

March 19, 2014 

The state Senate has approved a smart response to the heroin epidemic that is claiming lives across Kentucky, but the bill could be even stronger by allowing public-health agencies to set up needle-exchange programs.

Senate Bill 5 would put Kentucky in line with the majority of states that make the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone readily available to first responders and heroin users and their families.

Law enforcement would receive training in how to administer the antidote, which blocks opiate receptors in the brain and has a good safety record even for someone who is not overdosing. Paramedics in Lexington used Naloxone to revive three overdose victims just last month.

But in more rural places, where response times are longer, another user or family member might be better able to save a life by administering the antidote, which can be an injection or nasal spray.

The bill also provides immunity from prosecution to those who report an overdose and stay by the victim until medical help arrives, a Good Samaritan clause already in force in many states. Overdose victims also would be immune from prosecution if they enter treatment.

The main argument against putting an overdose antidote into the hands of drug abusers is also used against providing drug users with clean needles and syringes — that you appear to condone drug abuse.

This philosophical objection pales compared to the practical reality that lives are being lost — 44 heroin deaths in Lexington alone last year — and that many costlier health crises are going to follow as drug abusers who have shared needles contract HIV and hepatitis C, both of which already are on a steep rise in Kentucky.

Allowing health departments and other agencies to distribute clean needles, now classified as illegal drug paraphernalia, would also put addicts in touch with health care providers who could channel them into treatment programs. Some public health agencies in other states are starting to package clean syringes and Naloxone, trademark Narcan, together for users.

SB 5 — sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, R-Southgate, and backed by the Beshear administration and Attorney General Jack Conway — would require that anyone convicted of heroin trafficking that leads to a death serve half of their sentence before eligibility for parole while raising the threshold for trafficking heroin and methamphetamine from 2 grams to 4 grams.

It also earmarks more savings from earlier penal reforms to fund drug abuse prevention programs.

Finally, SB 5 puts into state law the guidelines for Kentucky's new Medicaid drug treatment benefit, something the state has desperately needed for a long time and that is happening now because of the federal Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion.

With smart planning, Kentucky should finally provide enough residential drug treatment capacity that when an addict reaches out for help it will be there.

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