Landmark heroin bill clears General Assembly; Gov. Beshear promises to sign SB 192 "first thing"

03/25/2015 01:15 AM

FRANKFORT — After falling frustratingly short in recent sessions, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a comprehensive package to address the state’s burgeoning heroin epidemic.

Senate Bill 192 largely mirrors a compromise bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday, with provisions for needle-exchange programs pending approval by city and county governments, no-charge good Samaritan protections for those who report overdoses, expanded access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and $10 million in the current fiscal year and $24 million annually thereafter to fund various treatment options.

The legislature overcame a major hurdle in the chamber’s handling of heroin traffickers.

In the end, lawmakers retained the 2-gram threshold for class D felony trafficking, but prosecutors can seek to extend parole eligibility to 50 percent rather than 15 percent if authorities find two or more indicators of a more sophisticated drug operation, such as scales, cash, baggies and weapons. Convicted low-level dealers who can prove they sold heroin to feed their addictions may be discharged into treatment.

Heroin dealers caught selling between 2 and 100 grams of heroin can be charged with class C felonies, and those trafficking more than 100 grams of the drug may be charged with class B felonies.

SB 192 cleared the House on a 100-0 vote, then the Senate on a 34-4 vote.

“I think on all fronts this is, again, an effective piece of legislation,” Rep. John Tilley, co-chairman of the SB 192 conference committee, said after the House vote.

Gov. Steve Beshear indicated he will sign the bill “first thing tomorrow morning” to take advantage of SB 192’s emergency clause because “Kentuckians can’t wait one more minute for the tools it provides to fight heroin.”

“Senate Bill 192 is tough on traffickers who bring these deadly drugs into our communities, but compassionate toward those who report overdoses or who admit they need help for their addiction,” Beshear said in a statement. “I applaud our legislators for putting aside partisan interests for the greater good of all Kentuckians who have been affected by this devastating drug.”

While debate on SB 192 was nonexistent in the House, a handful of senators argued against authorizing needle exchanges, saying such a move would only condone drug use.

Sen. Chris McDaniel called the vote “very courageous” for some given the misgivings about the needle-exchange provision in SB 192. He said he had talked with some needle-exchange opponents before the Senate voted on the legislation.

“But it was the compromise that was reached, and at the end of the day we feel like the base of the bill dealing with the combination of treatment and punishment justified the whole of the bill, and we’re very excited,” said McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill.

The consolidated Northern Kentucky Health Department lobbied for the needle-exchange provision, as had a number of hospitals and health providers in the area stricken especially hard by heroin abuse, he said, reiterating that local governments should decide whether to launch such programs.

Lawmakers will have to keep a close eye on SB 192 as the legislation takes effect, similar to other substantial reforms like 2012’s “pill mill” bill. SB 192 includes measures to evaluate heroin reforms and study other avenues to handle the state’s opioid addiction, among others.

Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said such reviews helped the General Assembly as it dealt with consequences from the prescription drug legislation, particularly in enacting regulations recommended by physicians and prescribers. “That’s why you’ve seen such a precipitous drop in prescription drug abuse in this state,” he said.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, who said he’s “thankful” SB 192 passed, said lawmakers should often review their work to catch any unforeseen issues that may emerge.

“We’ll take a look at it if we need to when we need to, but we’re pretty satisfied with the result we have and think it’s going to be best for Kentuckians,” said Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville.

For those who have been personally affected by the spread of heroin, Tuesday marked a day of celebration.

Rep. Ron Crimm, a Louisville Republican whose nieces died from heroin use, embraced Tilley on the House floor after votes were tallied. House conferees also watched the debate on SB 192 unfold in the Senate from the chamber’s floor.

Tilley said the stories of Crimm and Rep. Joni Jenkins, who lost her nephew to a heroin overdose, are only a fraction of the heart-wrenching tales shared in the debate on SB 192.

“I’ve got letters by the hundreds and emails by the thousands of people who’ve lost someone or been affected by this,” he said. “… To say there wasn’t a real human element to this at all times, I’d be lying to you. In fact, there was real emotion, there were tears shed over the course of this process — a number of them today.”

Jenkins, D-Shively, was among those who wiped away tears after SB 192 passed both chambers.

She credited the Legislative Research Commission staff with gathering research on needle exchanges and good Samaritan provisions throughout the process.

She credited her nephew’s family with giving her their blessing and support to hold Wes Jenkins as a symbol of the lives lost to the heroin scourge.

“That was hard,” Jenkins said. “It was a hard decision, but we’ve got to start talking about these things. You know, there’s such a stigma around this disease of addiction, and we’ve got to start talking about it and bring it out to light.”

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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