One of the hallmarks of illegal drug use in Kentucky is that each epidemic tends to hit a region particularly hard before it fans out across the state.
Northern Kentucky and Louisville have suffered from the recent steep increase in heroin addiction. Eastern Kentucky has been the epicenter for prescription drug abuse, while Western Kentucky was first to see the rise of locally cooked methamphetamine.
I witnessed one of these regional trends when synthetic drugs invaded the southwestern counties I represent along the Tennessee border. While most drugs are hidden from the public eye, these drugs were displayed prominently on the counters of many convenience stores. Even children could buy them.
It did not take long before we began hearing horror stories about teenagers and young adults winding up in our emergency rooms, many in a psychotic state. They were buying products intentionally mislabeled as bath salts and plant food or known by such other names as K2 and synthetic marijuana.
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Law enforcement had a difficult time prosecuting the underground chemists and retailers selling this poison because the law at the time was geared more toward heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
Other state officials and I also learned that banning the synthetic drugs individually was not an effective approach. All it took to make a law toothless was a small tweak in the chemical formula.
In 2012, however, I sponsored legislation that made it much easier for state officials to quickly ban new variations of synthetic drugs. It also cracked down on retailers who refused to stop selling them. Coupled with vigorous enforcement, the law helped turn back what could have been a far worse problem.
Unfortunately, there is always a need to stay vigilant when it comes to illegal drug use.
Just days after the 2015 legislative session culminated with a comprehensive update designed to reduce heroin addiction, law enforcement came to me with concerns about a disturbing return of synthetic drugs ordered online and delivered by mail.
The problem will be addressed during the House Judiciary Committee's August meeting, and I will file legislation later this fall for the General Assembly to consider when we convene in January.
It is admittedly tough for one state to take on Internet sales involving shady companies based in other countries, so greater federal involvement will be key. Nonetheless, Kentucky was at the forefront of stopping rogue pharmacies from illegally shipping prescription drugs here a decade ago, so we do have a blueprint for success to follow.
One area where we can make an immediate difference is modifying the penalties for those selling or possessing synthetic drugs. The 2012 law was built on the assumption that the drugs were equivalent to marijuana, but it's becoming clear that newer versions are much more dangerous and addictive.
As we continue to increase access to treatment, we recognize the need for education and prevention. These new, more dangerous synthetic drugs represent a renewed threat, but Kentuckians have proven time and again that we can come together and lead the country when it comes to taking on illegal drug use.