Politics & Government

Bill aims to boost treatment for heroin addicts, prison time for dealers

Heroin is typically cooked in a spoon over an open flame, such as a candle, before being injected.
Heroin is typically cooked in a spoon over an open flame, such as a candle, before being injected. Getty Images/Wavebreak Media

FRANKFORT — Drug addicts could get better access to treatment and drug traffickers could face longer prison sentences under a bill that will have bipartisan support in the 2014 General Assembly, which starts next month.

Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, said her bill is a response to dozens of heroin-related overdose deaths in Northern Kentucky, although the entire state suffers from "the scourge," as she called it. Kentucky medical examiners reported at least 639 fatal drug overdoses in the first nine months of 2013, and 26 percent involved heroin. Two years ago, just 3 percent of overdose deaths involved heroin.

Stine unveiled her bill Thursday at a Capitol news conference, flanked by Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.

"Make no mistake about it, we believe this bill has the potential to save lives in the commonwealth of Kentucky," Conway said.

Stine's bill, an earlier version of which stalled in the House last winter, would require the state Medicaid program to cover several inpatient and outpatient treatment options for people addicted to opiates, including heroin and prescription painkillers. It also would divert some of the state's hoped-for savings from a 2011 prison sentencing reform package to expand treatment programs.

The bill does not contain dollar figures. In a separate presentation Thursday, state budget officials said Kentucky spent nearly $163 million in fiscal year 2013 on drug addiction outreach, research and treatment, with roughly half the money coming from the federal government.

Demand for space in Kentucky treatment programs is far greater than supply. Noel Stegner of Fort Thomas said his 30-year-old grandson, Nicholas Specht, tearfully begged for a bed in a residential treatment center to help him defeat his heroin addiction. No beds were available. Specht died from an overdose in August.

"It was a 90-day wait for a bed, and when you're an addict, 24 hours is an eternity," said Stegner, who watched Thursday's news conference with relatives. "He had been in recovery for five months and five days. But then he had a really bad day. He just couldn't get past that day. His brain said, 'I need heroin,' and he got heroin."

Stine's bill also would stiffen penalties for people convicted of trafficking in larger quantities of heroin, methamphetamines or both, requiring them to serve at least half of their prison sentences before they are eligible for probation or parole.

In the first nine months of 2013, police filed 2,169 heroin trafficking charges in 1,567 cases, according to state drug enforcement data presented Thursday, although many of those cases involved less than two ounces of heroin, the cutoff point for heavier penalties in Stine's bill.

The bill also would make it easier for prosecutors to pursue criminal homicide charges against drug traffickers whose product results in a fatal overdose.

The bill would establish that an overdose death is a "foreseeable result" of using a Schedule I controlled substance such as heroin. The trafficker could not defend himself by claiming that he had no personal knowledge of the person who overdosed, and he could not blame the person who overdosed for contributing to his own death through reckless behavior.

"It's no different than if somebody goes and taints bottles of Tylenol, for example," Stine said. "They may never meet the person who dies from their actions. But they knew when they did it that somebody would ultimately be injured or die."

Tilley said federal law already allows U.S. attorneys to prosecute drug traffickers for criminal homicide after a fatal overdose. State prosecutors in Kentucky can try to build such a homicide case under existing law, but state courts have not agreed on "the solid presumption of what people should know about heroin," Tilley said.

The Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposed the earlier version of Stine's bill last winter and is ready to do so again.

Ernie Lewis, the group's lobbyist, this week said that Kentucky grappled with an exploding prison population because of drug convictions until lawmakers agreed in 2011 to soften penalties for many nonviolent drug crimes and steer more addicts toward treatment. Since then, the state inmate population has dropped slightly and typically hovers around 21,000.

Rewriting the law to focus on whatever drug is popular at the moment — whether it's prescription painkillers, methamphetamines or heroin — is what overfilled the prisons last time, Lewis said.

"I understand we're angry at heroin right now, at people who traffic in heroin," Lewis said. "But most of this trafficking is done in small amounts by people who are addicts themselves and need to get into treatment. We shouldn't make it easier to put them in prison longer, much less to prosecute them for a crime like murder."