Politics & Government

Kentucky Senate unanimously approves bill aimed at reducing heroin deaths

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 — The Kentucky Senate approved a bill Thursday that could create more treatment beds for drug addicts and lengthen prison sentences for drug traffickers.

Senate Bill 5 is aimed at the hundreds of fatal heroin overdoses afflicting Kentucky — particularly Northern Kentucky — over the past three years, and the crimes committed by heroin addicts desperate for money. The Senate voted for it 36-0, with Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, voting "pass."

"We must lock up the dealers and treat them like the violent offenders that they are, and provide treatment services for the addicts who have broken the law but who have created a prison for themselves worse than anything that we could build," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, told the Senate.

Last year, the Republican-led Senate passed a similar version of Stine's bill, but it stalled in the Democratic-led House. This year, Stine made changes and won the support of House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat. Stine said Thursday that she's hopeful that her bill will receive a good reception in the House in coming weeks.

The bill 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.

Kentucky has about 2,400 treatment beds at a few dozen residential programs for substance abusers, mostly in Louisville and Lexington, according to reports. Addicts and their families say that getting an available bed can mean waiting six months or longer and driving for hours — insurmountable obstacles when an addict needs immediate help.

"There are no beds in Northern Kentucky. There is no long-term treatment available. All the beds are filled," Eric Specht, whose 30-year-old son, Nicholas, died of a heroin overdose last year, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The committee approved the bill hours ahead of the full Senate.

"We had to go to Louisville, to The Healing Place, to get him through detox the first time," Specht said. "There is nothing like being a parent and your child comes to you and says, 'I need help,' and you can't offer it to him."

Stine's bill 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 shock probation or parole.

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

Many Kentuckians addicted to opiate-based prescription painkillers including OxyContin and Vicodin have turned to heroin, also an opioid drug, since the state cracked down on illegal "pill mills," Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, told the Senate committee.

Stine's bill also would make it easier for prosecutors to pursue criminal homicide charges against drug traffickers whose product results in fatal overdoses.

It 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.

Ernie Lewis, a lobbyist for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, spoke against that part of the bill Thursday before the Senate committee.

State law currently allows prosecutors to build a case against drug traffickers for wanton murder, second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide, depending on the facts behind a fatal overdose. But the burden is on prosecutors to prove that it was homicide and not on defendants to disprove it, Lewis said. Stine's bill would flip that on its head, he said.

"I don't think we ought to be in the business of making prosecutions easier by risking the constitutionality of this law," Lewis told the senators.

Stine's bill also would increase the availability of Naloxone — an injection that can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose — by letting doctors prescribe it to emergency workers and addicts' families.