Health

Few pieces of legislation drew as much attention this year as the bill addressing Kentucky’s recent surge in heroin abuse and overdose-related deaths.

State lawmakers approved the bill at the close of the legislative session. Now, they’re beginning to look at the next steps to address what’s been described as an epidemic of heroin abuse in Kentucky.

Several agencies — including Louisville Metro’s health department, Kentucky State Police and the Florence Medical Group — on Friday presented to a panel of legislators their agencies’ views on how to make the law, Senate Bill 192, more effective.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican candidate for attorney general, said he expects more legislation to be proposed in Frankfort as a result of the discussions.

“You may see additional funding. It’s a budget year, so obviously we’re going to work on funding on a number of fronts, including substance abuse care,” Westerfield said.

A law enforcement agency panel requested legislation to reduce the gram-weight threshold from 100 grams to to 25 grams, in order to include ounce dealers who are normally distributors only, not users.

Christopher Conners, director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force, said establishing a statewide wire interception statute would primarily be used to address drug trafficking organizations.

“Which would disrupt the flow of trafficking in the area and decrease availability, which, in turn, might dissuade new users,” he said.

Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Louisville Democrat, said the wire interception recommendation is worth examining.

“Not only would it help us in drug trafficking but in human trafficking as well. So, I think that’s something you may see in 2016 in the session,” she said.

Likewise, Westerfield said he expects the introduction next year of legislation addressing wire tapping and the gram weight.

Circuit Court Judge David Tapp of Somerset presented information on a pilot program operating in his court where drug abusers are treated with vivitrol, a medication used to treat addiction. Participation in the program is voluntary and includes a consultation with the defendant, their lawyer and a medical professional.

Tapp said although the program has been effective, there are problems, such as patient non-compliance and pre-existing health conditions, particularly related to liver function. He suggested providing treatment earlier in the process, perhaps as soon as a person enters the criminal justice system.

“We should be able to reduce some of those additional co-existing health issues, which may preclude the administration of effective treatment later,” Tapp said.

Approved in March, the “heroin bill” provided $10 million for drug treatment programs, increased penalties for drug traffickers and allowed local governments to establish syringe exchange programs. It also increased the availability of vivatrol and the drug naloxone, which can reverse overdose symptoms.

In 2014, Louisville alone had 204 heroin-related deaths, according to the Office of Drug Control Policy.

State Rep. Denny Butler, a Louisville Democrat, said it’s important to get all stakeholders involved in creating the best methods to treat people with addiction while also preventing drug-related crimes.

“We can’t afford to continue incarcerating addicts, because at the end of the day, when we release them — if we’ve never dealt with the addiction — then you still have the addict on the street,” he said. “And that’s where the crime follows to support that addiction.”