Politics & Government

Heroin bill gets out of Kentucky House committee but faces uncertain future

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 — A controversial anti-heroin bill eked out of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, but its future in this year's legislative session is uncertain.

Senate Bill 5 got the necessary 12 votes to get out of committee after state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, changed her vote from a "pass" to a "yes" because chairman John Tilley promised that a provision would be added to provide clean needles to drug addicts. Eight other members kept their "pass" votes; no one voted against it.

Several members also voiced concern that the measure, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, R-Southgate, went too far in allowing the prosecution of homicide when the sale of heroin or some other Schedule I controlled substance results in an overdose death.

Ernie Lewis, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Frankfort attorney Guthrie True told the committee members that that part of the bill was unconstitutional.

But Attorney General Jack Conway and Assistant Deputy Attorney General Mitchel Denham disagreed.

The committee also changed the bill to classify Zohydro, a painkiller, as a Schedule I drug.

Stine said after the meeting that she was not enamored with the idea of adding a needle-exchange program to her bill and was not sure about the Zohydro amendment.

"If this can save lives, I'm for it," she said, while acknowledging that she did not know whether the bill could get through the state House and then be accepted by her Senate Republican caucus.

In the two-hour committee meeting, Stine provided several witnesses who talked about the growing scourge of heroin in Kentucky.

Her bill would create more treatment beds for drug addicts and lengthen prison sentences for drug traffickers.

It is aimed at the hundreds of fatal heroin overdoses afflicting Kentucky — particularly Northern Kentucky and Lexington — during the past three years, and the crimes committed by heroin addicts desperate for money.

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. 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.

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 shock probation or parole.

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

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.

Melissa Halfhill of Louisville pleaded with the committee to approve the bill. She told how a 32-year-old man gave heroin to her high school-age daughter. It took her life Jan. 6.

Conway told the committee that 22 people died in Kentucky in 2011 because of heroin overdoses. He said that number increased to 143 last year.

The heroin problem has been particularly bad in Northern Kentucky and Lexington, but it is spreading now to places like Bowling Green, Hazard, Hopkinsville and Ashland, he said.

Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said 30 percent of all drug overdose deaths in Kentucky involved heroin.