Heroin and heroic storytellers

Long after we knew that the war on drugs was an epic failure, data compiled by the Public Performance Safety Project of the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trusts cited unduly punitive state laws as the reason America incarcerates more citizens longer than any other nation. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, led a crusade for comprehensive criminal justice reform. The 2011 result, House Bill 463, stirred controversy. But Tilley, an attorney, persuaded skeptics that increasing diversionary treatment for addicts and reducing sentences for non-violent offenders would protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and save as much as $400 million over a decade. Last year, a PBS “Frontline” documentary celebrated Kentucky as a national model for curbing incarcerations.

“We’re locking up people we’re pissed off at,” said Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton. “We ought to be using this space for people we’re afraid of.” Tilley agreed, saying, “We need to distinguish between who we’re mad at and who we’re afraid of.”

In my last dispatch, I reported on Republican Chris McDaniel’s Senate Bill 5, an anti-heroin measure that doesn’t distinguish between small peddlers (mostly addicts seeking to fund their habits) and kingpins. It treats them with equal severity — which might be stunning if McDaniel’s district weren’t the epicenter of the heroin scourge. The battle cry, “Northern Kentucky hates heroin,” implies a synergy of fear and anger. McDaniel is running for lieutenant governor. How much that matters in the politics of heroin, I noted, “remains to be seen.”

At a news conference on Monday, Tilley, surrounded by his working group, unveiled his House Bill 213, so numbered as a tribute to the Feb. 13 birthday of Rep. Joni Jenkins’ nephew, Wes Jenkins, who died from a heroin overdose. The fanfare suggested that Tilley’s bill, which includes most of McDaniel’s measure, would be the only one to advance.

Later that afternoon, McDaniel held forth on the Senate floor. He said a dealer who got out of jail too soon dumped the body of a mother who overdosed in his house on the cobblestone streets of Covington. He faulted House Democrats for the failure of last year’s heroin bill.

Then he exploded. “The House is going to try to rush out a bill that no one has seen and try to ram it down their members’ throats. They’re going to play games and refuse to hear Senate Bill 5. They’ll pass it over here and scream to the press, ‘We passed a bill; the Senate needs to act!’ I wonder what our friends in the press are going to write.”

McDaniel concluded by boasting that the Senate works while the House plays games with lives at risk “and enough is enough!” The diatribe drew tentative, partisan applause.

While McDaniel was shouting, I was twisting with disappointment. The rant struck me as unhinged, unglued, undisciplined and unfortunate — a regrettable rookie mistake. At best, it would be greeted as red meat by an angry constituency. At worst, it would set the stage for another round of chicken with the House.

Tilley’s bill cleared his Judiciary Committee a week ago. A local option needle exchange provision narrowly survived an amendment to reduce it to a study. His persuasive oratory resonated as he ended a passionate plea with a punchline: “We’re addicted to illegal substances. And until we treat it like a public health crisis, we’ll be digging out of this until we’re all dead and gone. And if they vote us out of office because of politics and rhetoric, then we can run for Congress.”

Regardless of what, if any, anti-heroin legislation emerges out of our divided legislature this session, we should be deeply grateful to the recovering addicts and survivors of victims who share their stories with anyone who might listen. Poignant, personal stories are the most compelling and transformative. They stir healthy hearts and minds. They inform policies and save lives.

Regardless of the outcome, McDaniel can take pride that most of his six-month marathon with stakeholders survives. Moreover, the two young people who testified for Senate Bill 5 were as persuasive as they were courageous. It’s intimidating to confront myths and stereotypes that stigmatize drug addiction until you realize how deadly they are. Misinformation thrives on silence, so we can celebrate transcending the taboo and continue the conversation.

Here’s hoping that a bipartisan effort to abate this tragedy will summarily reach a conference committee and gain final passage as an emblem of redemption.