Candidates for attorney general weigh in on needle exchanges, synthetic drugs

08/09/2015 10:25 AM

Candidates vying to be the commonwealth’s top law enforcement official recognize the effect the spread of illegal drugs, like heroin, is having on the state, and both Democrat Andy Beshear and Republican Whitney Westerfield are offering their solutions.

The General Assembly approved anti-heroin legislation in the waning hours of this year’s short session, but a provision of the bill allowing local governments and health departments to open and operate needle exchanges is still hotly debated.

Senate Republicans have been among the most outspoken over a “free exchange” operating in Louisville, where addicts do not need to trade used needles for new clean ones.

Several senators in the caucus see free exchanges as a form of state-sponsored acceptance of drug abuse.

Health professionals contend that exchanges are meant to curb the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C and provide an avenue to get addicts into treatment programs.

Westerfield, the Senate Judiciary chair and former part-time assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Christian County, worked with members of the House and Senate to pass the muftifaceted anti-heroin bill.

Westerfield helped sell his Republican colleagues on the idea of exchanges, but he says what’s happening in Louisville is not what he had in mind.

“One of the things we were trying to combat was needle sticks with law enforcement and to prevent people that are finding these needles out in public places from being stuck with those dirty needles, and we’re now flooding the streets. We have put back out in the streets of Louisville twice what we’ve brought in,“Westerfield said. “And that does give me great concern.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has requested Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who is running for governor, review the state’s anti-heroin legislation and determine if Louisville is operating their exchange under the confines of the law.

Westerfield told Pure Politics that “it remains to be seen” if the Louisville exchange is operating under the confines of the law.

“I doubt we’ll get that (opinion) by the end of this election cycle, which is unfortunate, but we’ll see if we do and we’ll proceed from there,” Westerfield said. “I suspect somebody will file legislation in 2016 to address that.”

Westerfield said he’d be “more comfortable” with legislation mandating strict one-to-one exchanges, but he said he is open to debate on free exchanges if they’re successful in reaching drug abusers and then transitioning those into one-to-one exchanges.

Beshear, the son of Gov. Steve Beshear, told Pure Politics the type of exchanges set up in the state should be determined by the “community and what type of risk they’re facing.”

“I think the exchanges are important. Those families that are setting up for birthday parties or parties in the park shouldn’t have to be looking at and cleaning up dirty needles,” Beshear said. “I think needle exchanges go a long way towards making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Beshear said that he felt the exchange operating in Louisville, and the other exchanges proposed around the state, “meet the law.”

As the state struggles to overcome the creep of heroin, a new synthetic drug known as “flakka” is starting to generate headlines.

This isn’t the first time the commonwealth has tangled with synthetic drugs. In recent years the state has cracked down on “bath salts” and “Ivory Wave.”

The state has been caught playing a game of whack-a-mole in recent years as synthetic drug manufacturers tweak formulas as the state defines their compositions in statute.

Acknowledging how current statutes are set up, Beshear told Pure Politics that the state needs to craft legislation that will allow authorities to arrest and jail dealers of synthetic drugs.

“We’re going to have to have legislation that comes at it not from the chemical composition, but the effect that the drug has,” Beshear said.

Pure Politics asked Westerfield about “flakka” and synthetic drugs, and he said one of the most important things from the next attorney general is to be “engaged with the General Assembly.”

“He showed up for the bill signing,” Westerfield said of current Attorney General Jack Conway. “We need somebody who is going to be more involved than that. Someone who understands drug control policy.”

As dealers tweak their formula to edge new laws, Westerfield said that cyclical fight will always happen.

“That’s all the more reason to stay involved, get involved, reach out and partner with law enforcement, engage with your prosecutors across the state, and get them plugged into the General Assembly and the work of the General Assembly,” he said.


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