Attorney General Jack Conway unveils four key pieces to heroin bill but doesn't back specific proposal

12/18/2014 07:39 PM

FRANKFORT — Rather than backing a specific proposal to curb the state’s growing heroin issue before the 2015 legislative session, Attorney General Jack Conway laid out on Thursday four essential pieces the law enforcement community believes are critical in taming Kentucky’s latest drug problem.

Conway, flanked by about a dozen law enforcement professionals, said any bill addressing the heroin epidemic must strengthen penalties against traffickers, allow police and first responders to administer Naloxone during overdoses, create a “limited but workable” Good Samaritan provision and expand treatment options for heroin addicts.

Those were key components of a wide-ranging heroin bill — which Conway endorsed in December 2013 alongside its sponsors, retiring Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, and Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville — that ultimately died in the state House at the 11th hour.

To emphasize the need for such legislation, Conway said heroin overdose deaths in Kentucky jumped from 22 in 2011 to 230 in 2013.

“For me, this is not a partisan issue,” Conway, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2015, said at a Capitol press conference. “I’m not here to endorse or oppose any single bill, but as the commonwealth’s chief law officer and as the commonwealth’s chief law enforcement officer, I think it’s important that I stand here with representatives of law enforcement and representatives of the prosecutorial community to talk about the major provisions that we, that we in law enforcement want to see in any piece of heroin legislation that’s passed by the Kentucky General Assembly.”

Combating the heroin scourge has been a focal point of discussions before next year’s 30-day session. After this year’s legislature adjourned without acting on the heroin bill, Senate President Robert Stivers asked Gov. Steve Beshear to call a special session specifically to address the issue, which didn’t come to fruition.

Conway called Senate Bill 5, the Stine-Tilley bill, “a good starting point” in 2015, but he reiterated his disappointment that the legislation failed to become law. He attributed the General Assembly’s inability to pass the bill — the Senate passed SB 5 but the House never took a vote before the clock struck midnight April 15 — to “horse trading between the chambers” in the session’s waning hours. SB 5, he said, “was held too long.”

“My point in being here today is to say this is not a bill that should wait for the 11th hour,” Conway said.

“It shouldn’t wait for the last day. It shouldn’t wait for the last week. As soon as they’re back here after they organize, as soon as they’re back here in their first days that they can pass legislation, they ought to get a reading for a bill that contains these four provisions at a minimum, get it out, get it voted on, and give us some tools to attack this problem.”

Missing from Conway’s list of priorities for a heroin bill are two pieces that proved insurmountable roadblocks as SB 5 moved through the legislative process: charging heroin traffickers with homicide in overdose deaths and allowing local health departments to create needle-exchange programs.

Making dealers liable in fatal overdoses passed constitutional muster for Conway, but he said concerns from others muddied that specific piece of SB 5.

“The question is if you’re dealing in something that is as dangerous as heroin, I think it’s indeed foreseeable that harm could result and someone could die, and I didn’t have any problem with that provision,” Conway said.

“Now there are others who say, you know, that might be hard to enforce and let’s just get some enhanced penalties, so my point this year is the say we need tougher penalties because they’re not tough enough to keep people from coming over our borders, and the people that come over our borders, if they’re trafficking, it ought to be at minimum a class C felony and it ought to be in that category of crimes you have to serve 50 percent of your time (before being eligible for parole).”

Needle-exchange programs were added to SB 5 in the House Judiciary Committee. While public health data show needle exchanges curb the transmission of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C among intravenous drug users, some see such programs as “too permissive for those who are using needles,” Conway said.

“If that’s going to slow it down, then let’s get these four principles in a bill and get us the tools we need to try to tackle this problem,” he said.

There are some ways around legislative inaction to start addressing some of the parts endorsed by Conway and law enforcement officials, specifically expanded treatment options and improved access to Naloxone, also known as Narcan.

Conway said his office will have “a major announcement” about increased accessibility for Narcan in Janury, and he praised Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd’s decision to direct $32 million from two settlements with pharmaceutical companies toward substance abuse treatment.

“That money has been used to expand juvenile treatment in 19 separate facilities throughout the commonwealth of Kentucky,” Conway said. “That money has also provided scholarships for over 800 people who couldn’t afford attending Kentucky recovery centers. It also helped to complete the construction of a Kentucky recovery center in the Ashland area. It kept open two treatment centers that provide services to pregnant women, and it provided transitional housing for those who’ve completed treatment.

“We must, we must continue to invest in treatment because we cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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