Gov. Beshear signs heroin bill, says legislation sends strong signals to traffickers and addicts

03/25/2015 06:30 PM

FRANKFORT — With a stroke of his pen on Wednesday, Gov. Steve Beshear enacted a comprehensive bill targeting the state’s growing heroin epidemic, making provisions such as local-option needle exchanges, expanded access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and stiffer penalties for heroin traffickers immediately available.

Senate Bill 192, which sailed through both chambers late Tuesday before the scheduled final day of the short session bled into Wednesday morning, “sends a very strong and clear message” to dealers and addicts, Beshear said at a Capitol news conference Wednesday.

“One message goes out to the heroin traffickers in Kentucky: We’re coming after you, we’re going to put you out of business, and we’re going to put you in jail,” the governor said.

“The next message goes to the thousands of Kentuckians who are addicted to this terrible drug: We’re coming to help you. Work with us and help us to help you get on the road to recovery and to becoming a productive member of society.”

SB 192 flirted with peril as time wound down in the legislative session.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield said at points he believed a multifaceted heroin bill would again elude lawmakers, but he credited negotiators for staying at the bargaining table and hammering together a deal.

Numerous senators’ views on needle exchanges began to thaw following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the House’s heroin legislation, he said.

A handful of senators eschewed needle exchanges as tacit acceptance of drug abuse, but Westerfield and others said the measure, which mandates city and county governments allow local health departments to open needle exchanges, is key to not only reaching out to addicts, but also curbing the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

“We didn’t want to get up and walk away from the table because we knew what needed to be accomplished, we knew the problem existed, and we knew that our work wasn’t done,” said Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican and chairman of the judiciary panel. “And the provisions that were the most contentious were the things that were the most important.”

How many health departments will operate needle-exchange programs remains unclear, but Rep. John Tilley said his “traveling roadshow of advocacy for them” will begin in earnest soon.

Just across the Ohio River in southern Indiana, health officials there are handling a substantial outbreak of HIV from needle-sharing. The Indianapolis Star reported Wednesday that doctors in the area will lobby the legislature for needle-exchange programs to tackle the public-health crisis, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is preparing to declare a state of emergency in the region with 72 confirmed cases of HIV thus far, according to the Associated Press.

In Kentucky, confirmed hepatitis C cases have risen nearly 1,600 percent from 2000 to 2012 because of opioid abuse, Tilley said.

“Even last year when we began to discuss (needle exchanges), there was a resounding chorus from public health professionals and medical professionals,” said Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.

“Dr. (Ralph) Alvarado (a Republican state senator from Winchester) talked about the great work that can be done there last night on the Senate floor, so I think we need advocacy like that to ease that initial feeling that people have about these programs.”

SB 192 will “help those of us in law enforcement to save lives and to beat back the scourge of heroin,” Attorney General Jack Conway said.

“I want to thank all the families of Kentucky who helped push for this legislation,” said Conway, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “I want them to know that their voices matter and that their voices were heard and that ultimately led to the passage of this legislation.”

Senate President Robert Stivers said lawmakers entered the session prioritizing legislation addressing the state’s heroin problem.

As overdose deaths climbed to about 22 per month in Kentucky, the Manchester Republican said the General Assembly recognized that the state “needed some type of change in direction in the policies we had.”

“I think there was some skeptics about what could be done in the environment we’re in, but again, governor, I think we proved the skeptics wrong,” Stivers said.

“… Can we guarantee success? No we can’t, but we have guaranteed the opportunity for people to do things different to try to take on the challenge of dealing with a problem that has come to fruition because of other things we’ve done to make it harder one pain clinics and methamphetamines and things of that nature.”

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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