UPDATED: House committee passes heroin bill but policy divides remain between chambers

03/10/2015 10:22 PM

FRANKFORT — The House Judiciary Committee has passed the beginnings of a compromise on anti-heroin legislation Tuesday, although negotiations are expected to continue in conference committee during the upcoming veto recess.

The judiciary panel amended Senate Bill 192, stripping the legislation of its original provisions on health care services for inmates and inserting language that largely resembles the House’s version of a heroin resolution. The bill passed the committee unanimously.

Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the judiciary panel and sponsor of the House’s heroin bill, said he expects the House to vote on SB 192 Wednesday, although an agreement will likely be settled in a conference committee.

The legislation offers glimpses of compromise between the chambers as well as a few new wrinkles, such as proposing hospitals direct overdose victims to community mental health centers for addiction treatment and sending 5 percent of cost savings from 2011 penal reforms to the Department of Corrections for Vivitrol or other extended-release treatments for recovering inmates.

SB 192 includes the House’s proposed local-option needle exchanges with a provision that syringes handled through the program would not be considered drug paraphernalia while onsite, grants immunity on drug possession and paraphernalia charges for those who report heroin overdoses and creates a new class B felony for trafficking a kilogram or more of heroin.

The bill also eliminates the definition of a “peddler” and adds a provision that mandates those convicted of trafficking more than 60 grams of heroin serve at least half of their sentences before parole, probation or other release.

SB 192 reflects “some progress in our meetings” with senators, Tilley said, but work remains to bridge some policy divides between the chambers.

“There are a number of agreements in the bill,” Sen. Whitney Westerfield said after the hearing. “But I don’t think we’re there yet, so we’ll keep working.”

Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said the two sides are at odds on the proposed needle exchanges and stricter penalties against heroin traffickers.

Senate Bill 5, the Senate’s anti-heroin bill, makes any heroin trafficking a class C felony, up from the current class D felony for trafficking less than 2 grams.

“My concern with the 2-gram limit, keeping that in there, is that I know the dealers that operate just underneath that threshold but they’re dealers,” he said.

“And they might not be the kind you hear about or see on television or on big, huge crime shows, but they’re big for Christian County or big for western Kentucky and it bothers me that they’d be getting a softer touch at a class D level instead of a C-level felony. I think that argument resonates with others in my caucus.”

Approving the needle-exchange programs would be a “big concession” by the Senate, as would raising trafficking penalties by the House, Westerfield said.

Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, reiterated the House’s resolve toward needle-exchange programs operated by local health departments, and he said history has shown stiffer penalties haven’t dissuaded dealers from dropping the drug trade.

“There does have to be law enforcement interdiction no question, but it needs to be at the root supply, and that’s what we’re trying to do is take out the larger dealers in this deal instead of rounding up a lot of lower-level traffickers who’ll be replaced,” he told reporters after the hearing.

“The market will continue to replace these lower-level traffickers and we’ll continue to increase our prison population with no change in the drug problem.”

Some senators have been swayed on the House’s proposal for needle exchanges, which would be set up by local governments and run through health departments, according to Tilley. Supporters say the programs will reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C, clear used needles from public areas and offer the first point of contact for substance abuse treatment.

“We’ve seen, number one, it’s local option, so it has a couple of barriers at the local level, but we’ve seen tremendous success that these programs have had all over the country,” Tilley said.

The Senate’s workgroup had been willing to take the House’s needle-exchange and Good Samaritan provisions before the GOP caucus with the understanding that a compromise would feature harsher penalties on heroin dealers, Sen. Wil Schroder said in an earlier interview.

Lawmakers on both sides discussed the provisions of their respective bills in informal meetings late Monday, and a response to the heroin scourge includes needle exchanges comes down to compromise, he said, noting heroin traffickers had been charged with class C felonies until the legislature passed penal reforms in 2011.

“I think a number of our members are willing to entertain that idea of needle exchange, but they want the higher trafficking levels,” said Schroder, R-Wilder. “That was in Senate Bill 5; that was what we wanted. Talking to our local prosecutors, there’s a frustration to this revolving door.”

By moving the bill in Sen. Paul Hornback’s SB 192, legislators cleared what had become a stumbling block in procedural talks.

SB 5 gained its significance last year, when a similarly numbered heroin proposal died at the 11th hour in the House, while House Bill 213 has been personalized in the story of Rep. Joni Jenkins’ nephew, who died of a heroin overdose in 2013. Feb. 13 was his birthday and the day HB 213 cleared the House.

Tilley called the legislative movement “a breakthrough to the extent that we can now form a conference committee” to negotiate through the veto recess, which starts Thursday and ends March 23.

“The Senate wouldn’t budge on their position; we wouldn’t budge on ours,” Tilley told reporters. “I thought it was time that we move on something, and I think returning the bill to the Senate in a Senate bill represented a compromise between those two.”

Sen. Chris McDaniel, sponsor of SB 5, said he was unconcerned which bill carried the heroin legislation.

“Whatever vehicle gets it done, we’re just going to be happy with that and move along,” the Taylor Mill Republican said.

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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