- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The Kentucky Senate pushed through an anti-heroin bill Thursday that is aimed at reducing an explosion in overdose deaths statewide.

The bill cleared the Republican-dominated Senate from start to finish in just three days. Lawmakers said it was not a partisan issue, yet politicians on both sides have taken strong positions on the issue in hopes of benefiting from the bill’s passage ahead of the gubernatorial race later this year.

Heroin has exploded across the state in the two years after state lawmakers made it significantly harder for people to access dangerously addictive prescription pain killers from doctors. But drug users have since turned to heroin, an opioid with effects similar to prescription painkillers. The result is that heroin overdose deaths, which made up just 5 percent of all overdose deaths in 2011, now account for 32 percent, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

Concern about the deaths prompted several bills to fight the problem last year, but despite broad support from both sides the state legislature failed to pass anything. Since then, with the governor’s race looming in 2015, lawmakers have tried to stake out their support for various anti-heroin provisions.

Tuesday, on the first day of the legislative session, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appeared with Attorney General and candidate for governor Jack Conway at a news conference announcing funding for a project to reduce heroin-overdose deaths. Beshear is not eligible to run for a third term due to term limits.

Thursday, it was the Republicans’ turn, when the state Senate unanimously approved the anti-heroin bill written by Sen. Chris McDaniel, the running mate for Republican candidate for governor James Comer.

The bill tries to attack the problem on two fronts. First, if a heroin user overdoses and calls 911 for help, that person could avoid prosecution for some drug-possession charges. Second, when a heroin user is arrested, they will get treatment in the local jail while they are awaiting trial. The bill redirects $7.5 million of state money from the Department of Corrections to local jails for substance-abuse treatment programs.

“In most cases heroin addicts do not desire to be rehabilitated, but rather are only looking for their next fix,” said McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill. “However, we did identify a common unifying experience wherein users are encountering government, and that is when they are arrested and booked into a county jail.”

The bill now heads to the state Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, where House Speaker Greg Stumbo vowed to pass a similar bill, but with some changes. The Senate bill significantly increases the penalties for heroin dealers by requiring a minimum five-year prison sentence for someone who traffics any quantity of heroin. Right now, a person who deals less than 2 grams of heroin can get a prison sentence of between one and five years.

The change worried some Democrats. Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, and an attorney, said she represented a war veteran who had served in Iraq and who had been charged with trafficking heroin. The veteran was able to go through a state drug court and get the help she needed.

“Many times the addict is the trafficker,” Webb said. “My client would not have had an opportunity for support until after a lengthy prison sentence in this scenario.”

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