Discussions on heroin legislation continue in House judiciary panel, but no vote taken on Senate Bill 5

02/26/2015 03:28 PM

FRANKFORT — Talks on legislation targeting Kentucky’s burgeoning heroin problem continued Thursday as lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee reviewed, but did not vote on, the Senate’s version of a response to the drug issue.

With the 30-day session nearing an end, Rep. John Tilley hopes the two sides can meet soon and cobble together a resolution. He floated a possible informal conference committee meeting on Saturday, but that was news to Sen. Chris McDaniel, who presented Senate Bill 5 in Tilley’s judiciary panel.

McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said nothing is keeping the House judiciary panel from acting on SB 5 Thursday evening.

“I see no need that we should wait that long,” he said when asked by reporters of meeting on Saturday.

Thursday’s meeting followed a similar hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee for Tilley’s House Bill 213 the day before, with no vote taken there as well. Potential roadblocks discussed in the House committee largely mirrored those that emerged Thursday, with much of the debate focused on punishing traffickers, treating addicts and developing local-option needle exchanges.

But for Jenni Woodruff, all that matters is passing “meaningful legislation” so more lives like her daughter’s aren’t lost.

Woodruff, of Covington, said her daughter Christi died after shooting heroin with a contaminated needle in 2011. Her addiction, Woodruff said, started with a prescription to Vicodin at age 16, and in her final days, Christi complained of pain in her swollen arm but blamed the injury on a fall.

“I begged and pleaded, ‘Please go to the hospital.’ Of course she refused,” Woodruff recalled in her testimony. “… She finally called to me and said she couldn’t breathe, please call 911. So off to the ER, where we learned of an infection from an abscess, and by the time she asked to call 911 her organs were already shutting down.”

Lawmakers will need to resolve a few differences between SB 5 and HB 213 before the General Assembly can enact possible remedies.

One contrast in the bills involves the prosecution of heroin trafficking, which SB 5 bumps to a class C felony for all instances while HB 213 keeps dealing 2 grams or less at a class D felony and increases selling a kilogram or more to a class B felony.

Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders said the 2 gram threshold limits the discretion of prosecutors in differentiating between those who need treatment versus those who are simply selling heroin, which is a relatively simple task for those attuned to heroin addiction.

“They go through withdrawal when they come to jail, they usually have track marks up and down their arms, and prosecutors have the distinct ability to quickly pick them out and deal with them appropriately at a lower level,” Sanders said.

“Any trafficking offense can always be reduced to a possession offense and they can be given a lower-level sentence, but taking someone who is a true trafficker and only because they had less than 2 grams on them when they got busted and not only reducing their punishment, but putting them into treatment programs with a group of addicts is a very dangerous situation because we’re putting the fox in the henhouse.”

Tilley, however, said the 2 gram threshold came at the recommendation of a penal reform task force in 2011.

The group was empaneled to curb the state’s ballooning prison population at a time when heroin was not nearly the scourge it is today, he said, noting other drugs that have plagued the state like prescription painkillers and methamphetamine. He added that the 2 gram limit on heroin possession is lower than on other drugs given its potency, and some judges have meted out harsh punishments for some low-level traffickers even after the legislature enacted penal reforms.

“Two grams is about one to two days’ supply for an addict,” said Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.

Another key difference between the two anti-heroin bills is a provision allowing local communities to develop needle-exchange programs in HB 213.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said the exchanges, in which users can trade used needles for clean ones, may send the wrong signal.

“There are people who do believe that if you set up a needle-exchange program, you are more or less granting permission to youngsters to use that,” he said.

Tilley and others said such programs would cut the exchange of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.

Rep. Denny Butler noted that The Courier-Journal recently reported on an outbreak of HIV in three southern Indiana counties, with 26 cases confirmed as of Wednesday.

“These are all opiate-addicted people using needles, so it is a health crisis and it’s only going to get worse,” said Butler, D-Louisville.

It’s unclear what form a heroin compromise will take at this point. McDaniel said he doesn’t know how much support the needle-exchange measure has in the Senate, and when asked about the prospects of setting any threshold to distinguish addicts from traffickers as proposed in HB 213, McDaniel said he prefers leaving that determination to the legal system.

“I think it’s important to note that quantity is not the only thing that makes a dealer,” McDaniel said.

“There’s lots of other factors, and we’ve got to trust our local law enforcement, we’ve got to trust our prosecutors, we’ve got to trust our judges in applying some good discretion to that because everyone understands the burden that’s in our prison system right now, and no one wants to overburden it unnecessarily, and no one wants to send an addict to a place where they can’t truly get their help.”

Tilley, still cognizant of last year’s failure to pass legislation combating the state’s heroin problem, promised action on the issue this year as the short session nears its end, regardless of whether SB 5 or HB 213 is used as a vehicle for the final package.

The two sides are close enough to an agreement that “we could lock ourselves up this weekend” and reach a resolution.

The House’s inability to pass anti-heroin legislation last year was “unfortunate,” Tilley said, “but in one sense it has driven us back to the table to come up with yet another solution.”

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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