FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House plans to vote Friday on a bill to address the state's heroin epidemic, and its sponsors anticipate a showdown with the Senate over how severely to punish different levels of heroin traffickers.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to approve House Bill 213 and send it to the House floor.
HB 213 shares the overall intentions of the Senate's heroin measure, Senate Bill 5: More state funding for addiction treatment (though little money appears to be available this year), tougher penalties for major traffickers and greater public access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose.
But the bills differ on several points, the stickiest of which might prove to be prison sentences for heroin traffickers. SB 5 would require that anyone convicted of trafficking, regardless of the amount, face up to 10 years, and that at least half the sentence be served before parole eligibility. HB 213 would recognize three levels of traffickers, with escalating penalties based on how much of the drug they had in their possession: up to three years for 2 grams or less, up to 10 years for 2 grams to a kilo, and up to 20 years for more than a kilo.
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House Democrats say there's little value in a long prison stint for low-level "peddlers" who pass along a small amount of heroin to fellow addicts. Senate Republicans, including several former law-enforcement officers, argue that Kentucky will attract more dealers from border states, such as Ohio, if it doesn't have stiff penalties for all. Lawmakers from the Northern Kentucky delegation, representing Cincinnati's suburbs, say that's already a serious problem.
House Judiciary chairman John Tilley, the sponsor of HB 213, acknowledged Wednesday that "we don't have a consensus package." A conference committee of House and Senate members will have to hammer out a compromise, he said.
"This bill will be negotiated very heavily in the waning days of the session," said Tilley, D-Hopkinsville. "We hope to come out with a good product with the Senate, and I have confidence that we will."
To support their case, House Democrats on Wednesday invited experts to testify before the judiciary committee.
Katie Zafft, a criminologist at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the panel that lengthy prison sentences aren't an effective solution to drug abuse. Better approaches would be addiction treatment — especially if it uses medication-assisted therapy that nullifies opioid craving — and aggressive community policing that disrupts drug distribution, Zafft said.
Police interrupt only one in every 15,000 drug sales, on average, so dealers assume they're not likely to be caught, she said.
The states already have tried more incarceration, with the average time served behind bars for drug offenders rising by 36 percent since 1990, she said.
"If your goal is to reduce drug use and drug-related crime, several decades of research indicates that increasing prison sentences is an ineffective and expensive strategy," Zafft said.
Before the committee approved HB 213, it amended the measure's "Good Samaritan" rule, intended to legally protect people who report drug overdoses or seek help with their own drug overdoses.
Originally, the bill would have established a criminal defense for Good Samaritans facing drug possession or drug paraphernalia charges on the scene of an overdose. But new language was added to specify that the Good Samaritans could not be charged with those crimes if they sought medical assistance and remained on the scene.
Tilley, the sponsor, said the goal of that section was to encourage people to report overdoses, and there might be hesitation if they feared they could be arrested at the scene.