- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Fighting back against the scourge of heroin abuse, the Kentucky House passed its version of legislation Friday to combat the drug that has taken a toll on a growing number of families.

During the debate, some lawmakers recounted tragedies caused by heroin addiction in their own families or among friends and constituents. The measure is the latest anti-drug offensive by lawmakers who in past years took aim at fighting prescription drug abuse, synthetic drugs and methamphetamine production.

“The heroin scourge is an epidemic,” said Democratic Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville. “It’s a public health nightmare. … Families changed forever, lives lost.”

The Republican-led Senate passed its legislation to fight heroin use last month.

Now, the attention turns to efforts to resolve differences between the chambers. The state’s top lawmakers have listed heroin legislation as a top issue in the legislative session ending next month.

The Democratic-run House passed its bill, 98-0 after a heated debate over a provision allowing local governments to create programs in which heroin users could swap dirty needles for clean ones. An effort to remove the needle exchange provision, and instead study the issue, was defeated Friday.

“The perception of giving free needles to drug abusers sends a bad message,” said Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington.

Tilley countered that the needle exchange provision puts “what works over politics.”

Drug users participating in needle exchanges are more likely to enter treatment, he said. It has a strong public health benefit because clean needles prevent diseases like Hepatitis C, he said. And it would be left up to communities whether to start the program, he said.

“If the stated goal is to save a life, needle exchange programs have been proven time and again to save lives,” said Tilley, the bill’s lead sponsor and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The Senate’s heroin bill does not allow for local needle exchange programs.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer criticized the House for including it in their version.

“They know we don’t want that in the bill,” the Georgetown Republican said.

The House bill also would toughen penalties for higher-volume traffickers. The Senate measure would treat all heroin dealers the same, regardless of how much heroin they sell.

Heroin overdose deaths now account for 32 percent of all Kentucky overdose deaths, up from 20 percent in 2012. There were 230 overdose deaths in 2013 because of heroin, up from 22 in 2011.

Areas of northern Kentucky have been hard hit by overdose deaths.

Other key parts of the House bill seek to improve drug treatment and increase the availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose.

Last year, House and Senate leaders were unable to agree on a bill to combat heroin use. Lawmakers have a few weeks to try to reach a compromise this time.

“I’m glad that at least they’re getting a bill out early enough that we can try to work out our differences,” Thayer said of the House. “There’s still plenty of time left to do that.”

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The House legislation is House Bill 213.


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