Heroin bill squeaks through to House but with concerns about constitutionality, needle exchanges

03/26/2014 03:17 PM

In a nearly two hour long meeting, the legislation aimed at fighting heroin in Kentucky barely passed out of committee Wednesday, requiring one Democrat to change her pass vote to move the bill to the full House.

Senate Bill 5 passed the committee 12 to 0 with 8 members passing on a vote. The concerns among legislators were fractured into two groups with some voicing concern with the constitutionality of charging heroin traffickers with homicide in the event of an overdose death; and another group concerned with needle exchanges. Allowing for heroin addicts to turn in needles to keep them from transmitting hepatitis or HIV was a newly-added section.

Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, also added a provision allowing the wider access to the drug Naloxone which combats the effects of heroin overdoses.

“My main concern is that we don’t become victims of our own success,” said J. Michael Brown the Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

Brown along with other advocates and lawyers spoke about how Kentucky’s success in cracking down on prescription drug abuse has shifted users of those prescriptions towards heroin. Attorney General Jack Conway said Kentucky has seen a 650 percent increase in the state of overdose deaths.

Conway along with Tilley and Sen. Katie Stine of Southgate, who sponsored the orginal version of the bill, came together before the session to outline the need for legislation like this to pass.

But it’s future is far from certain, based on some of the concerns raised in Wednesday’s judiciary committee meeting.

Chief among the concerns on the bill is the provision which is regarding prosecution of heroin dealers who have sold to someone who overdosed. The legislation opens the door for prosecutors to more easily charge a dealer with homicide.

But lawyer J. Guthrie True argued that by charging a dealer with a homicide may not be constitutional, especially by shifting the burden of proof to the defendant.

Some of the legislators on committee who are lawyers in their day job said they agreed with True and refrained from voting for the bill. But advocates of the law say that the provision is needed.

Melissa Halfhill of Louisville spoke as a parent to the committee. Her daughter died of a heroin overdose in January, and she said police know who the dealer is, but they can’t prosecute him under current law.

Some of the push-back also came on the needle exchange provision Tilley added. The concern is that such a move would be seen as condoning behavior of addicts who would be allowed to turn in needles without repercussions.

But Tilley said he was going to stand firm on the need for the exchange in the bill.

A hesitant Stine said that she was out to save lives. And while she’s not “enthusiastic” about the provision, she does understand the argument.


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