Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 22, 2013

Battling heroin

Growth of deadly drug leads to promises of tougher law

The Independent

ASHLAND — A surge in heroin overdose deaths in Kentucky has both Democrats and Republicans in the Kentucky General Assembly promising to work together to enact laws that  call for tougher punishment for high-level traffickers while offering more treatment for addicts.

In fact, Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, a conservative Republican, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, a Democrat, were in Frankfort Thursday promising to work together on a bill to combat heroin abuse in the 2014 General Assembly. State Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat and likely candidate for governor in 2015, praised their efforts.

“We believe this bill has the potential to save lives,” Conway said at a state Capitol press conference.

Until recent years, heroin abuse was only a minor problem in Kentucky and mostly limited to the larger cities. That’s no longer the case. Statewide heroin overdose deaths increased by 650 percent last year, and state officials said the trend appears to be continuing. Conway noted nine died from heroin overdoses in Lexington in just a few weeks.

“Overdoses have become a daily occurrence in northern Kentucky,” said Stine, who represents a district in the area.

Heroin abuse also is increasing in rural Kentucky. It fact it seems as recently enacted laws have made it more difficult for addicts to get the prescription pain medication to feed their habits, use of heroin is increasing in the same small towns and rural counties tha have been plagued by the prescription drug epidemic. While law enforcement officers in this corner of Kentucky will tell you they are still fighting a war against abuse of  prescription drugs and home-made methamphetamines, they are seeing more incidences of heroin use. That’s why  heroin is emerging as a primary target in the legislative session that opens in early January.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said legislation to crack down on heroin stands a good chance of passing the chamber. He advocated a balanced approach that mixes punishing traffickers and treating those hooked on the drug.

“You want to delineate between the individual who is addicted and could be helped out of that problem, versus the guy that’s the profiteer,” Stivers said. He’s right, of course, but the drug war has always pitted the pushers against the users.

The proposal touted by Stine and Tilley would require high-volume heroin traffickers to serve at least half their prison sentences before becoming eligible for parole. They currently have to serve at least one-fifth of their sentences before reaching parole eligibility.

The proposal also seeks to make it easier to prosecute heroin traffickers on homicide charges if their customers die from overdoses. Traffickers could no longer claim they didn’t know heroin can kill. They also could no longer use the victim’s actions of voluntarily taking the drug as a defense.

We like the proposals. We have zero sympathy for pushers whose only interest is getting rich off the weaknesses of others. They belong behind bars.

However, addicts who are serious about kicking their habits deserve all the help they can get, including serving less time in jail in exchange for aggressive drug treatment at approved clinics.

 Republicans and Democrats often find themselves in disagreement on key issues in the General Assembly, but they can — and do — agree on the need for effective drug laws that punish the pushers while helping the addicts. Laws enacted the prescription drug epidemic and reduce the abuse of meth are working. It is now time to take aim at heroin abuse.