Herald-Leader Editorial

House fails to act on heroin crisis; Beshear should explore executive orders

April 23, 2014 

While many states have moved to combat their growing heroin crises, Kentucky's House let the clock run out without voting on a bipartisan bill that would have salvaged lives at risk from the cheap and suddenly abundant illegal opiate.

We can't begin to sort out the issues — political, substantive and perhaps even personal — that kept the House from considering the bill in time to work out differences with the Senate.

But none of those concerns justify the waste of life and human potential that heroin is already wreaking on Lexington and Northern Kentucky with the rest of the state no doubt soon to follow.

Gov. Steve Beshear should look into using his executive authority to enact some of the bill's provisions, including putting the overdose-antidote naloxone into the hands of all first-responders and the friends and families of heroin users.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick declared an emergency last month and ordered the public health department to make naloxone (trade name Narcan) available to first-responders and more accessible to family and friends of heroin users.

In Kentucky, Senate Bill 5 died in the House almost at the stroke of midnight on the session's last day. It would have enabled first-responders to obtain and administer Naloxone, provided them with training in how to use it and protected them from normal civil liability when administering the antidote which reverses opiate overdoses and has been shown to be safe even for those who are not overdosing.

SB 5 also would have made the antidote available in Kentucky for the first time to the families and friends of heroin users and provided immunity from prosecution to those who report a heroin overdose and stay with the victim until help arrives.

Heroin deaths rose in Kentucky from 22 in 2011 to 143 in 2012.

Auspiciously, drug treatment options are about to expand significantly in Kentucky as Medicaid for the first time begins providing a standard drug-treatment benefit, required by the federal Affordable Care Act.

SB 5 codified changes related to expanded treatment, but expanded treatment can and will proceed even without the legislation.

The outlook is not so good for new mechanisms that SB 5 would have created for diverting heroin users from criminal prosecution and prison into treatment.

There was also strong support in the House for allowing needle exchange programs which would reduce the risk of transmitting HIV and hepatitis C and protect children and other members of the public from coming into contact with discarded needles.

The loudest objections were raised to SB 5's provision allowing heroin traffickers to be charged with homicide if a buyer dies from an overdose. While distinguishing between addicts and traffickers is difficult, there was plenty of time to reach a resolution on this issue.

The prospect of a state homicide charge is not likely to deter drug traffickers and certainly should not have been allowed to block the many good things in the bill.

The House's failure to act is perplexing and disappointing.

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