Talks on heroin abuse legislation take limelight in Senate Judiciary Committee, but no vote taken

02/25/2015 12:45 PM

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers began their public review of anti-heroin legislation ahead of a likely conference committee as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony, but took no vote, on House Bill 213 Wednesday.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the judiciary panel, said he met with bill sponsors from the House and Senate as well as stakeholders in courtrooms, jails and police stations throughout the state in order to reach some consensus on a final package.

The Hopkinsville Republican said he’s preparing a committee substitute to HB 213 and may call a special meeting to approve that version the bill Thursday or Friday, a short window as the 30-day session enters its 18th day considering the legislation will need action in the House before a conference committee can be appointed.

Rep. John Tilley, HB 213’s sponsor, said the House Judiciary Committee he chairs will hear testimony on Senate Bill 5, the Senate’s bill targeting heroin abuse.

“I don’t know the mechanics of all this will work out, and I don’t care,” Westerfield told reporters after the meeting. “I don’t care whose name’s on what bill and what number comes out and whether it’s got an ‘H’ or an ‘S,’ doesn’t make any difference to me. All I want to do is get a bill out that addresses this need.”

Westerfield called Wednesday’s discussion on the bill “fruitful” as senators peppered Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and other officials with questions about the proposed needle-exchange programs, heroin trafficking thresholds, naloxone administration and other aspects of the legislation.

Tilley, speaking about the needle-exchange programs that would allow users to trade used needles for clean ones, said that topic has generated some political concerns as lawmakers fear seeming lax on drug abuse, but he noted HB 213 passed the House unanimously. Even some representatives who opposed needle exchanges in floor speeches and votes on an amendment cutting that provision from the bill came up to Tilley afterward and said they supported the provision, he said, noting his misgivings about such programs when he first explored the issue.

“It evokes a visceral response obviously,” he said. “You’re exchanging free needles. It sounds like you’re condoning drug use, I get that, but actually research shows quite the opposite.”

Tilley said such exchanges, which would be approved locally and operated by health departments, will curb hepatitis C and HIV contractions among addicts and keep used needles out of parks, roadways and playgrounds. Those who use needle-exchange programs are five times more likely to enter treatment, he said.

But much of the debate centered on HB 213’s three-tiered prosecutorial system, which would differentiate between low-level peddlers who are trafficking to support their heroin addiction and high-volume dealers. Tilley said those who sell fewer than 2 grams of the drug are more likely to need treatment themselves rather than incarceration.

Some, however, said the kilogram threshold for the structure’s upper tier is unfeasible since state prosecutors rarely handle cases involving such a large amount of the drug.

What’s more, HB 213 may miss some high-level traffickers who carry just enough to fall under the bill’s 2 gram limit, Senate President Robert Stivers said, noting he supports giving prosecutors more leeway in how to proceed in heroin cases.

“You might catch somebody with a gram, but they’re pretty sharp and shrewd and know, ‘Hey, I don’t want to hit that 2 gram level because I know I hit that 2 gram level I trip the light and I have a different type of heat on me,’” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “And there are people shrewd enough to do that. I’ve been around the game a long time.”

Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder, said the 2 gram threshold for low-level traffickers may be too high since that amount yields about 20 hits of heroin.

He also questioned introducing those individuals to an already crowded population in need of treatment as well as the utility of deferred prosecution, estimated that at least half of those deferred punishments in Campbell County failed.

“In our experience in Campbell County it didn’t work well, and what I mean is with diversion, probation we have these people supervised closely, and with deferred prosecution a lot of times the supervision’s not there,” Schroder said.

Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders suggested eliminating the structure altogether, and Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Christopher Cohron recommended setting the upper threshold to 60 grams, or about 2 ounces, rather than a kilo.

A provision in HB 213 allowing others aside from emergency first responders access to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, also raised concerns for Sen. Ralph Alvarado.

Without proper training, the administration of naloxone could be botched because some cases require multiple doses, he said.

Naloxone has “a very short half-life, about 30 to 60 minutes, some say up to 80 minutes on that medication,” said Alvarado, R-Winchester.

“When you administer heroin it’s got a very short half-life, three to eight minutes, but then it converts quickly into morphine, which can stick around for hours, so if you give somebody a dose of Narcan, it might improve suddenly. You might see an improvement, and if they’re not seeking medical attention right then and there at that moment, that Narcan will wear off, the morphine is still in their system, and they can go back under.”

HB 213 would require training for those prescribed naloxone, but “it’s not ever going to be perfect, Tilley said. Still, “we can’t let perfect get in the way of good here,” he said.

Westerfield, speaking after the meeting, said detailed talk of the needle-exchange programs surprised him. He said he “could probably get there” in supporting the optional measure, but he’s unsure whether other senators in the Republican-led chamber would follow suit.

A similar tiered system may be introduced in the version of HB 213 that the judiciary committee will consider, he said, adding he likes that the bill tries to differentiate between low and high volumes in heroin trafficking.

“My concern is if we don’t build in some prosecutorial discretion, some power to go above or beneath that or to charge differently from that, deviate from it, you’re going to catch some people at one level that you didn’t want to and you’re not going to catch some that you wish you could’ve,” Westerfield said.

SB 5 has been posted for consideration in Tilley’s judiciary panel Thursday, but he’s unsure whether he’ll call the bill for a vote.

He called such moves “ceremonial” at this point in the legislative process.

“The important thing is to get the conferees together as soon as possible again, whether that’s through the formal process or informally, and begin that discussion,” he said.

“Now make no mistake, we’ve been discussing it. I worked with Sen. (Katie) Stine and our attorney general (Jack Conway) for two years on this issue. We’ve now come to a point where we are closer than we’ve ever been on agreement.”

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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