House sends heroin bill to Senate by 98-0 vote despite needle exchange misgivings

02/13/2015 05:55 PM

FRANKFORT — Despite reservations about allowing local communities to create needle-exchange programs, the Kentucky House of Representatives’ bill to combat heroin abuse sailed through the chamber without a dissenting vote Friday.

House Bill 213, sponsored by Rep. John Tilley, now heads to the Senate and, likely, a conference committee for a compromise resolution.

Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the chambers are close in their versions of anti-heroin legislation. He defended needle exchanges, in which users can trade used needles for clean ones, as an effective tool to direct opiate addicts to treatment and stem the rising number of hepatitis C cases in the state.

The mere mention of needle-exchange programs evokes “a visceral reaction from people,” he said, but HB 213 “has been hailed as a good approach” to Kentucky’s continuing problems with opioid addiction. Tilley noted that lawmakers had previously tackled illicit prescription drug abuse in 2012.

“The fact that its moved to heroin is simply a reaction to opioid dependence,” he said. “Understand, heroin overdose deaths were already on the rise dramatically even prior to the passage of our bill.

“We have a state addicted to opioids. Until we can move past that, we’ll never solve this scourge. I think it begins with treatment, it begins with also enforcement, tougher penalties for those who would traffic the larger amounts.”

The bill includes provisions on tougher penalties for those selling a kilogram or more of heroin, immunity from drug and paraphernalia charges for those who call 911 in overdoses; grants first responders and family members access to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses; and improves access to the treatment drug vivitrol, among other facets.

Rep. Addia Wuchner introduced a floor amendment, which ultimately failed on a 45-53 vote, that would cut language authorizing local needle exchanges so lawmakers could study such programs in the interim.

“One of the areas that gives even a lot of people angst whether they’re for treatment or not treatment or locking them away forever or whatever they feel is needle exchanges,” said Wuchner, R-Florence. “And we’ve never had the opportunity to on the health and welfare committee to really debate and understand that issue fully.”

Tilley said lawmakers have enough time to review the exchange systems with 17 days left in the legislative session while others defended the programs’ abilities to curb blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C and nudge addicts toward treatment.

Rep. Denny Butler, a former Louisville police officer, said such exchanges are an effective tool in combating heroin addiction, and if the 1990s crack cocaine epidemic offered any lessons, it is that lawmakers can’t expect to wholly incarcerate their way out of the problem.

“I think we have to push the users to treatment and the sellers to prison, and we have to be sincere when we are talking about treatment,” said Butler, D-Louisville. “And this needle exchange gives us the first opportunity to get to these people and offer them treatment without them entering the criminal justice system.”

Other lawmakers balked at keeping the exchanges in HB 213.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said allowing addicts to exchange used syringes for new ones would send the wrong message to Kentucky’s youth, while Rep. John “Bam” Carney said heroin dealers could acquire unused needles and preload them with doses of the drug for sale at schools.

“You could hypothetically approach one of my middle school students or one of our high school students with this clean needle and for $20 sell this needle so that you could go get your hit on the heroin,” Carney said in supporting Wucher’s proposed amendment.

Still, Tilley and others stressed the importance of allowing local communities to create needle exchanges.

House Majority Whip Johnny Bell said the fewer used needles littering the state’s public spaces, the better.

“When we talk about this exchange, the first thing I think of is an individual that is an addict, hopefully in this exchange they will be bringing those old, dirty needles into a place so that they can be discarded in a safe way,” said Bell, D-Glasgow.

“Therefore children out playing on the streets, children in playgrounds, around schools, different locations, they’re not put at risk of stepping on these needles, of picking these needles up and sticking themselves or sticking their friends.”

As the debate wore on, Tilley urged representatives to consider the heroin epidemic not only a mounting drug scourge, but also a public health crisis.

If not, he said in an animated floor speech, “we’ll be digging out of this till we’re all dead and gone.”

“We owe it to our constituents,” Tilley said. “Let our communities decide. If you don’t want it you don’t have to have it, but if your community wants to debate it and save a life, then do it. We shouldn’t stand in the way of that, should we?”

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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