A bill that would have made heroin trafficking sufficient to support a criminal homicide charge in an overdose death failed this year in the General Assembly.
But with the death toll from heroin overdoses increasing in Kentucky, state Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, said she's going to try again in 2014 to get a law passed. It would hold the heroin dealer accountable, provide treatment for the addict and offer more support for advocates trying to stop the overdoses that have shaken Lexington and other cities.
Like the previous legislation, the bill would direct coroners to report certain drug overdose deaths to commonwealth's attorneys so more cases might be prosecuted, said Stine, who sponsored this year's bill.
"I can't help but wonder how many people have died unnecessarily from traffickers who would have been put in jail" had the bill passed this year, she said.
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Heroin has become the drug of choice for many people in Kentucky following a crackdown on the illegal use of prescription drugs. The Northern Kentucky area that Stine represents has been hit hard by heroin overdoses, but the trend has spread, affecting cities such as Lexington.
There have been 37 confirmed heroin overdose deaths reported in Fayette County in 2013, up from 22 in 2012, Fayette Coroner Gary Ginn said Friday. Of the victims whose drug overdoses were related to heroin, 29 were men. Thirty-six were listed on death certificates as white and one as black. The victims were 20 to 52 years old, with the majority in their 20s and 30s, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader. Among the victims was a retired jockey; a rehabilitation therapist; a business owner; and a man who, before he overdosed, was working toward a Ph.D., coroner's documents showed. One was found unresponsive in a homeless encampment.
The 37 overdose cases generally were classified as accidents.
Many of the victims had been in treatment previously, and in several cases, families said they thought the victims were drug-free at the times of their deaths. In at least one instance, family members reported not knowing the victim had ever used heroin.
Glenda Crum, mother of Coty Crum, 20, of Lexington who died of a heroin-related overdose in April, said she didn't think her son's death was being investigated as a homicide, but it should be.
Crum thinks dealers would be more aware of what they are doing if they knew that "if someone dies they are going to be in trouble too if they get caught being the one that sold it."
Stine made her first attempt at a law with Senate Bill 6, which would have made illegally trafficking in a Schedule I controlled substance sufficient to establish causation, and authorize a charge of criminal homicide if the death resulted from an overdose regardless of whether the defendant had any direct knowledge or contact with the individual who died. Schedule 1 drugs are those that have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
The bill was approved by the Senate but died in the House of Representatives.
Ernie Lewis, legislative agent for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he opposed language in Senate Bill 6 for several reasons, including that he thought it allowed for homicide charges against drug dealers even though the seller had no direct contact or knowledge of the person who died.
Lewis said that while heroin is a problem, current laws regarding wanton murder are sufficient to prosecute dealers who had an extreme indifference to human life and an awareness of a risk of death.
Stine said the exact language in the 2014 bill was yet to be determined, but the new law would require evidence tying the dealer to the death.
To be passed, Stine's legislation first would have to be approved by the House Judiciary committee chaired by state Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.
Tilley did not comment directly on Stine's efforts last week.
But Tilley said in a statement that "the explosion of heroin overdose deaths is alarming, and as someone who has led the fight to pass national model legislation on prescription and synthetic drugs, I know what a heavy lift this will be."
Tilley said he was committed to working with the attorney general, prosecutors, law enforcement, drug policy experts and legislative colleagues "to develop the best response possible."
Fayette Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said getting a successful conviction against a drug dealer whose drugs kill someone is a "proof issue." He said it boiled down to making the link between the dealer and the drugs that killed someone.
U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said that when such evidence exists in an overdose death, the federal penalty for a drug trafficker can be enhanced to a sentence of 20 years to life.
Heroin has been tied to at least three cases in Kentucky.
Harold Wayne Salyers is set to go on trial this month in federal court in the heroin overdose death of Wade Dickerson in Clark County in August 2012, according to court records.
Anthony A. Lacortiglia has pleaded guilty to distributing heroin that caused the May 2012 death of John M. Latham in Pulaski County, court records show.
A federal grand jury indicted Timothy Tingle on a murder charge in September in a Kenton County fatal heroin overdose. That victims's name was not in court records.
Harvey said prosecutors want dealers to know that if they sell drugs "to an addict that dies from it, their life may be over too, at least in terms of living in freedom."
Going after the dealers could be a "deterrent factor," he said.
"These drug traffickers are preying and profiting on human misery, and they know it and they don't care," said Harvey.
Stine said she wanted the 2014 legislation to take a three-pronged approach that, in addition to prosecution of dealers and treatment of addicts, calls for better funding for the Kentucky Agency for Substance Abuse Policy. Currently, it coordinates efforts among state and local agencies in substance-abuse prevention. Stine also is looking for a more predictable funding stream for treatment programs such as the one at the Hope Center in Lexington. Court and probation officials are finding that treatment rather than incarceration can benefit a heroin user, she said.
"I'm not wanting to reinvent any wheels here, but where there are wheels to be oiled, we need to be figuring out how we can make them work better and find coordination for folks in the community who really want to join in the fight," Stine said.
Heroin traffickers, she said, have launched a "severe attack on our people, on our economic development, on our communities, on our safety."