A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand
FRANKFORT – When it comes to illegal drug use, few states have been hit as hard as Kentucky over the last 15 years. We have lost thousands of loved ones during that time to a rising tide of meth, synthetic drugs, prescription drug abuse and heroin, and tens of thousands more have seen their lives ruined.
The General Assembly has responded by passing a series of laws, many of them hailed as national models, that have had real, lasting success against these epidemics.
But the battlefield, as some say, constantly changes, and this year, the focus is on heroin.
Its usage has grown dramatically, and not just in Kentucky. Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that overdose deaths attributed to this drug have gone up 400 percent nationally between 2000 and 2013. For the Midwest, the rate was 1,100 percent.
In Kentucky, five percent of overdose victims had heroin in their system in 2011, but two years later, that figure was up to 32 percent. A recent statewide poll, meanwhile, found that 13 percent of Kentuckians said they knew of someone who had died from heroin or was addicted to it.
Over the last several months, but especially in the law few weeks, a group of House and Senate members has been working on what we all hope will be another groundbreaking law. The plan is to resolve the remaining differences when the General Assembly returns to the Capitol to finish this year’s legislative session on March 23rd and 24th.
In many ways, the compromise bill the House offered Wednesday evening to move discussions forward follows the same approach that has served as the foundation of our other drug-related laws. It proposes much harsher penalties for those bringing heroin into Kentucky while expanding treatment for the addicts. Past lessons have taught us that we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this problem.
That does not mean our drug laws are lax; on the contrary, they’re some of the toughest in the nation. The House proposal, now included in Senate Bill 192, builds on that by significantly ramping up penalties for those found with a kilogram or more of heroin.
Our legislation also calls for re-directing some of the savings from 2011’s reforms of our criminal justice system to expand current substance abuse treatment programs. This would help addicts who are pregnant, who are in our local jails and who rely on our community mental health centers.
Two provisions new to Kentucky – but not to many other states – would authorize a Good Samaritan law and a local-option needle exchange program.
The former would hopefully encourage more addicts to report someone who is overdosing; as it is, too many are afraid to take this step because they fear being arrested. If this passes, those calling authorities in good faith would not be charged for possessing drugs themselves. Nearly two dozen states already have this in place.
About 35 states, meanwhile, allow local communities to implement needle exchanges, including five of the seven states surrounding us. Research has shown these programs make it more likely addicts will get the treatment they need, and the programs also reduce the prevalence of dirty needles in our communities and a rise in blood-borne diseases like hepatitis.
To help get these programs up and running as soon as possible, the House proposal recommends shifting $10 million in the current two-year budget to these new programs. We cannot afford to wait until the next budget cycle.
While the heroin legislation is arguably the most important unresolved issue for the General Assembly to finalize later this month, there are several others as well. House Bill 8, which would make several new groups of victims eligible for civil protective orders, is one, and two others would stabilize the state’s highway funding and strengthen the long-term future for the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System. Many other new laws, which I will cover more in the weeks ahead, have already passed.
Considering that the General Assembly lost a number of days to snow and cold weather, this 30-day legislative session nonetheless holds a lot of potential when it comes to landmark laws. My hope is that this will prove to be the case when the General Assembly adjourns.
If you have any thoughts or concerns about these issues, please let me know. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.