Politics & Government

Kentucky Senate panel approves anti-heroin bill after emotional testimony

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 is expected to vote Thursday on a bill that would require tougher mandatory prison sentences for heroin traffickers while diverting millions of dollars to expand treatment options for heroin addicts.

Senate President Robert Stivers said at a Wednesday hearing that this would be the third consecutive year the Senate had acted on heroin legislation. Stivers had harsh words for the Kentucky House for letting a heroin bill expire on the House floor in the final moments of the 2014 session.

"We've waited a whole year," said Stivers, R-Manchester. "And how many people have either been incarcerated — have gone to rehab — or even worse, have died for the lack, for the failure of them to take this up in the other chamber?"

Hours earlier, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters that the House planned to pass its own version of an anti-heroin bill in coming weeks.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve Senate Bill 5. The panel heard sometimes emotional testimony from many witnesses about Kentucky's deadly heroin epidemic, including from a reformed addict; a woman whose sister fatally overdosed; and police, jailers and hospital officials.

Alex Elswick of Lexington told lawmakers he got hooked on the painkiller OxyContin painkiller after he had minor surgery to remove wisdom teeth. Later, he switched from the pills to "the cheaper alternative" of heroin. He ended up homeless, wandering from state to state, until a convicted felon he worked with at a restaurant recommended a treatment program. Until then, no one had shared any options with him, Elswick said.

"Every day that I spent in addiction was abject misery. It's the kind of pain you can't really conceive," he said. "You'd rather eat the end of a gun rather than endure one more hour."

Mike Sweeney, who retired in 2014 as a Lexington police detective, said the majority of burglary suspects he nabbed in recent years were heroin addicts stealing from people's homes to feed their habits. Sweeney said he watched families go broke trying to pay for expensive treatment for their addicted children, who often stole from them.

SB 5, sponsored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, would:

■ Increase the scope of what coroners and medical examiners must report about deaths involving Schedule 1 drugs, including heroin;

■ Direct a greater portion of the savings from the state's 2011 penal code reform to addiction treatment programs. McDaniel estimated this would yield $7.5 million a year for treatment at jails and $5.8 million a year for treatment at community mental health centers.

■ Permit police officers, firefighters and paramedics to carry and administer naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, without civil or criminal liability.

■ Require that anyone convicted of heroin trafficking, regardless of the amount, be guilty of a Class C felony, which carries a five- to 10-year sentence, and that at least 50 percent of the prison sentence must be served before parole eligibility. Currently, first-time dealers caught with less than two ounces face a Class D felony, for which the sentence is one to five years.

■ Allow prosecutors the discretion to defer criminal charges against people involved with drug use who report a drug overdose to emergency workers, remain on the scene and complete addiction treatment.

In recent years, Kentucky has spent millions of dollars boosting its addiction treatment capacity, with mixed results.

The state Department of Corrections is adding thousands of treatment slots — it currently has the capacity to treat 5,455 people behind bars or through community programs — but there still are waiting lists. And treatment often fails the first time. Forty-two percent of the people who completed a jail or prison treatment program reported using drugs again within 12 months, according to a 2013 study by the University of Kentucky Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.

However, there needs to be an effort to separate the traffickers, who deserve prison, from the addicts, who can be saved, McDaniel said.

"It is time that we as members of the General Assembly step up and help people provide appropriate treatment options," he said.

Some Democrats on the judiciary committee voted for the bill while expressing reservations with portions of it. Senate Democratic Floor Leader Ray Jones of Pike ville said it would be smarter to give legal immunity to drug users who report an overdose, rather than offer them "deferred prosecution," which puts their fate in the hands of local prosecutors. People won't call 911 for help if they think there's any chance they could go to prison for it, Jones said.

Also, he said, it seemed unfair that a "heroin trafficker" — without any quantities specified in the law — could be an addict who shares his small packet with the user next to him, and that he must serve at least half of his prison sentence, while someone dealing in the equally destructive OxyContin could be paroled after serving 20 percent.

"This bill is far from perfect," Jones said. "And listening to some of the people speaking here today, I don't think this bill accomplishes all that you want it to accomplish."