FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - A Kentucky House panel cleared a measure Wednesday aimed at stemming the tide of heroin abuse in the state.
The bill would provide a three-pronged approach to the problem, combining treatment funding, harsher penalties for trafficking and education in communities.
Bill sponsor Sen. President Pro Tem Katie Stine, R-Covington, said the bill would allow courts to treat high-volume heroin trafficking charges as a homicide, and that the already-existing Agency for Substance Abuse Policy will be charged with educating and coordinating with community anti-drug advocates.
“It was important to me that we didn’t create extra bureaucracy,” said Stine. “That we use things that were already in place here, and that we made sure that they were effective and that they were functioning to the best of their ability.”
The bill also allows first responders, including police officers and emergency medical technicians, to prescribe and use the heroin antidote Naloxone. A Good Samaritan provision in the bill would also allow overdose victims to call for medical help without facing charges.
Lawmakers explained the homicide provision this way: A person convicted of trafficking will be considered to know the consequences of heroin, and will be held to have an understanding that the likely outcome will be death of the purchaser.
Testifying on behalf of the measure, Commonwealth Attorney General Jack Conway told the House Judiciary Committee that heroin overdoses have increased 650 percent since last year, and more than 1500 heroin trafficking charges have been issued.
Fayette County Judge Karen Thomas also testified for the measure, saying that up to 90 percent of her criminal docket consists of heroin-related charges, ranging from drug possession to petty theft.
“We try to stem the tide, and it’s almost impossible to stem,” said Thomas. “It’s overwhelming.”
Legal concerns emerged from J. Guthrie True, president of the Kentucky Association of Defense Lawyers. True said the bill goes too far by placing the burden of proof on the defendant in heroin trafficking case, and that trying a heroin trafficking case as a homicide is unconstitutional.
“Our problem, primarily, is with the prosecutorial sections,” said Guthrie. “How can we possibly prosecute our way out of this problem?”
Concerns also emerged from Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, and other members who disagreed with a provision in the bill establishing a needle exchange program. Aimed at slowing the spike in heroin-related Hepatitis C and HIV transmission, the program would allow drug users to exchange their potentially contaminated syringes for clean ones without charge.
The measure initially failed to pass the committee with only 11 votes in favor, but after committee chair Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, promised a floor amendment to negotiate the terms of the needle exchange program, Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, changed her vote, tipping the scales toward passage. The bill finally cleared the panel on a 12-0 vote.
The bill now moves to the full Kentucky House for consideration.