- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - House and Senate leaders have both promised to pass a bill this year fighting the state’s growing Heroin problem.

But will they pass the same one?

Senate Republicans last month passed their bill, which featured more money for treatment and a provision not to prosecute some overdose victims for possession charges. Similar ideas are in a bill House Democrats unveiled on Monday. But there are some key differences.

The House bill would let local governments create an exchange where heroin users could swap out dirty needles for clean ones. And it would increase penalties for people convicted of trafficking in more than 1,000 grams of heroin. The Senate bill would treat all heroin dealers the same, regardless of how much heroin they were selling.

Similar efforts failed last year after House and Senate leaders could not agree on the needle exchange provision, which some Republicans view as promoting drug use. But House Democratic leaders said they included the needle exchange program because clean needles prevent diseases like Hepatitis C and help save lives.

“We are at wits end in this state and the country for that matter to find things that actually work,” House Judiciary chairman John Tilley said. “It’s time to put policy over politics. If it works and people are dying and this can save lives, then there is no excuse for not including it.”

But the bill was not well received in the Republican-controlled Senate. Sen. Chris McDaniel, who wrote the Senate’s bill, denounced House Democrats in a fiery speech from the Senate floor where he blamed the lower chamber for “playing games” while Kentuckians continue to die from overdose deaths.

“People will make the argument about reduced hepatitis C and reduced HIV, things like that, and that’s a public health issue that probably should be debated on its own merits,” McDaniel said in an interview after his speech. “But in terms of getting people off of heroin, putting traffickers in jail - that’s what our bill is really focused on.”

Overall overdose deaths have not changed recently, but 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.

The significant increase in deaths has put pressure on lawmakers to pass a bill, with emotional arguments on both sides. House leaders filed their bill as House Bill 213 to honor the nephew of state Rep. Joni Jenkins, who would have turned 25 on Feb. 13. He died from a heroin overdose in 2013.

A large number of overdose deaths have been concentrated in northern Kentucky, where McDaniel lives. Monday, he told the story of a 25-year-old woman who was found dead from an overdose over the weekend, leaving behind a 4-year-old son.

Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that Michael Botticelli, the incoming director of National Drug Control Policy, plans to visit northern Kentucky and eastern Kentucky this year. McConnell said those visits will ensure a “continued federal focus on Kentucky’s drug problem.”

Tilley, a Democrat, said House lawmakers have worked on their bill for months, adding that he has had “great discussions” with McDaniel, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor in November.

“Politics always comes into these things. But that’s not a factor with me,” Tilley said.

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