In a perfect Commonwealth, politics wouldn’t matter in the legislative quest to address the growing heroin epidemic. But politics mattered last year, when high hopes for anti-heroin legislation were dashed as Republican hopes of winning control of the House and Democratic fears of losing it complicated the process. This year, the governor’s mansion is at stake. Northern Kentucky’s Sen. Chris McDaniel is running for lieutenant governor with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer at the top of the ticket. McDaniel is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 5, an anti-heroin bill the Senate unanimously advanced to the House last month.
How much that matters remains to be seen. What probably matters more are ideological differences between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House. House Democrats “don’t like this idea of (mandatory) minimum sentences and they don’t like this provision in the Senate bill that would treat small-time peddlers with as much force as big-time peddlers,” said the Courier-Journal’s Mike Wynn on KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.”
“Right now, you have to sell at least two grams of heroin to trigger a class C felony; under this bill … any amount sold would be a class C felony.”
Jack Brammer, longtime Frankfort bureau chief of the Lexington Herald-Leader, added, “I think there’s a good chance of this passing” in some form “but even if it does pass, I’m predicting that it won’t be until the last day or two of the session.”
Bill Bryant, interim host, noted, “It’s a situation now where people seem to want their fingerprints on it because it is, at least, popular legislation.”
Its most popular provision adds $13.3 million for treatment programs — $7.5 million for county jails and the remainder for community mental health facilities. Applauding the treatment component, Sen. Morgan McGarvey (D-19) said during a Senate floor debate, “We cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem. We cannot do it as a practical matter and we cannot afford to do it as a government matter.”
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, another Democratic attorney, Sen. Ray Jones of Pikeville, whose wife is a physician, seized on the inhumanity of the plan. “Addiction is a brain disorder,” he said. “And we would never approach treatment of any other mental illness the way that we’re approaching (addiction) in this bill.”
Jones added that the measure fails to address prevention and “anything we talk about besides prevention and treatment, in my opinion, is a secondary issue.”
Moments earlier, Ernie Lewis of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys testified on the cost of imprisoning drug offenders. “Today we are spending over a half-billion dollars — over double what we spent just in 2000,” he said. “You all have identified treatment as the key. We encourage you to” stress treatment. “But don’t make the same mistake of incarcerating hundreds, if not thousands, more people for a longer and longer period of time at a cost this Commonwealth simply cannot afford … Where’s the testimony that putting people in prison for a long period of time with other addicts is effective?”
Nobody expects the House to approve McDaniel’s bill in its current form. During a Senate floor speech, Republican Sen. Tom Buford of Nicholasville in Jessamine County even confessed he would urge the House to amend the bill for expanded patient access to suboxone. “Suboxone, in combination with talk therapy, is very effective. It treats both the mental and social symptoms that mark this terrible disease … Treatment, treatment, treatment is the solution to what we are dealing with here.”
Minutes later, Republican John Schickel, a retired drug enforcer of Northern Kentucky, took issue with his colleague, arguing that no treatment is effective. “I have personal friends who have spent thousands – over $100,000 — on treatment for their loving children that they love so much … Guess what? Their children are dead!”
As for the assertion that we can’t afford stiffer penalties, Schickel said “That’s a big lie, too,”adding that the state’s corrections budget has increased only one percent (from four to five percent) of the total budget in the past 30 years. He also predicted that heroin will be “a non-issue” in five years because its users will “probably all be dead.”
Rep. Tom Burch (D-30) has a better solution. His House Bill 41 embraces evidence-based treatment but features a needle-exchange program conservatives despise even though public health advocates say it would prevent the transmission of hepatitis C and HIV — and save millions of dollars.
Three words to the wise: treatment, treatment, treatment.