Kentucky General Assembly Passes Heroin Bill, Leaves Questions Open

Max Fuller, KLJ Senior Staff Editor[1]

After struggling to find common ground, the Kentucky General Assembly managed to reach a compromise on an anti-heroin bill on March 25.[2] The forty-one-page bill passed the Senate with a vote of 34-4 and passed the House with a 100-0 vote. The bill includes both tougher penalties for trafficking offenses, a needle-exchange program that local jurisdictions may opt in to, and provisions to eliminate barriers to treatment.[3]

Undoubtedly, heroin addiction and abuse has become an increasingly large problem in the Commonwealth. In 2013 31.9% of drug overdose deaths autopsied by the Kentucky Medical Examiner were linked to heroin. This number is almost double the 19.6% of drug overdose deaths that were linked to heroin in 2012, and over ten times the 3% of drug overdose deaths that were linked to heroin in 2011.[4] But will the General Assembly’s bill be effective? Heroin’s rise has been, in many cases, linked to tougher laws and regulations on prescription narcotics such as OxyContin. In 2014 Attorney General Jack Conway noted that “the state’s pill crackdown ‘played some role, but [was not] the whole story,’” and that “sometimes, it feels like a game of Whac-a-Mole. You get one drug under control and another pops up.”[5] With an emphasis on treatment placed in this bill, hopefully a crackdown on heroin will not lead to the rise of another drug.

There are also questions to be raised about whether or not tougher penalties are the answer to the heroin problem. The bill, which went into effect as soon as the governor signed it, requires offenders found with more than two grams of heroin and more than one item of “paraphernalia” to serve at least 50% of the sentence imposed. While there are many proponents of laws that are directed towards traffickers, there is substantial data that suggests other methods are more effective at reducing drug abuse rates than increasing incarceration rates. [6]

Will a solution that combines both increased treatment and increased penalties work to eliminate the rising heroin problem? Only time will tell.

[1] J.D. expected May 2016.
[2] Mike Wynn, Heroin bill passes with needle exchange, The Courier-Journal (Mar. 25, 2015), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/ky-legislature/2015/03/24/heroin-bill-gov-steve-beshear-urges-kentucky-legislature-pass-legislation/70376936/.
[3] 2015 Kentucky Senate bill No. 219, Kentucky 2015 Regular Session.
[4] Heroin deaths keep rising in Kentucky, The Courier-Journal (Aug. 2, 2014), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2014/08/02/heroin-deaths-keep-rising-kentucky/13504281/.
[5] Laura Ungar and Chris Kenning, Heroin surges as Kentucky cracks down on pain pills, The Courier-Journal (May 16, 2014), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/investigations/2014/05/16/heroin-surges-kentucky-cracks-pain-pills/9123285/.
[6] See, e.g. A drug policy for the 21st century, The White House (2014) https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/drugpolicyreform; Maia Szalavitz, Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work? Time (Apr. 26, 2009), http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html.