Kentucky--Drug dealers whose customers overdose on heroin could face homicide charges if a bill proposed by Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, becomes law.
Stine’s bill comes amid pleas from lawmakers, businesses and community leaders around the state to combat the state’s growing heroin problem.
The successful measures against prescription drug abuse in recent years has led to addicts turning toward the cheaper and more available heroin in the past two years, law enforcement and drug treatment center officials have said.
Some call for tougher penalties on dealers. Some call for more funding for drug treatment. Many call for both.
Stine said she will introduce her bill next week when the General Assembly reconvenes Feb. 5 and said several states have similar laws.
“It is hoped that this will operate as a deterrent to traffickers right now, ” Stine said. “Heroin in particular comes from Mexico and Detroit to Northern Kentucky. It goes down I-71 to Louisville, Route 9 to Ashland. We’ve noticed this increase for some time and it’s become even greater lately due to the difficulty in obtaining Oxycodone. The pills are harder to get and more expensive. Heroin is very common and cheap. I think the high number of overdoses being seen by the medical community, that’s alarming.”
Her bill would allow prosecutors to charge a drug dealer with criminal homicide if the prosecutor can prove the person who died from an overdose obtained the drug from the dealer. The penalty applies to any drug deemed by the Controlled Substances Act as a schedule I, which includes heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
It would also increase the imprisonment for dealers who have 4 grams or more of heroin from from five to 10 years to 10 to 20 years. The bill would increase the time period for police find enough of the drug on a suspect to warrant a felony trafficking charge.
Stop the flow of dealers
Many in Covington hope the increased penalties will stop the flow of drug dealers from Ohio and Indiana across the Ohio River.
Covington Police began seeing more heroin addicts in the community, particularly along the I-75 corridor, a little more than 2 year ago, said Covington Police Chief Spike Jones. The proposed bill would hold dealers accountable, but education and better treatment is also needed, he said.
“The folks we’re seeing are not like the 1970s public service announcements with some disheveled addict in an alley with a needle,” Jones said. “These people are from the suburbs, middle America.”
Dealers feel safer in Kentucky after the General Assembly reduced the penalties in 2011 for some drug dealing offenses, said Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders. After that, he saw a spike in heroin cases, which now make up a bulk of the drug caseload he prosecutes. He said he hopes Stine’s bill gets passed and reverses the trend.
“I can’t blame it all on the reduction in punishment,” Sanders said. “What we’re seeing is the perfect storm in terms of the reduction in punishment, rise in prescription narcotic addiction and cuts in law enforcement funding all at the same time.”
Tougher penalties only go so far without treatment
Increased penalties, however, will only go so far, said Jared Rowe. Treatment for addicts needs to be a part of the equation as well, he said.
Rowe, 28, of Louisville, has battled substance abuse since his teens and eventually started using heroin. It started with drinking at the age of 13 and then progressed to pot smoking, he said. Then a doctor prescribed narcotic painkiller Oxycodone when he had a car accident at the age of 16. The narcotic hooked him quickly, and, by his 20s he started doing heroin.
Rowe’s addiction took him through an ordeal that involved him moving to Texas and back, losing his jobs, home and reputation until in April when he checked into the residential treatment facility The Healing Place in Louisville.
Sober and with a new lease on life, Rowe said increased criminal penalties will deter some dealers and addicts but not all.
“A lot deal drugs so they can get the next one so they can use,” Rowe said. “There are people that deal that don’t use. They should have stronger consequences for their actions. They’re selling poison.”
But the state should also focus on more treatment, he said.
“A lot of times when I would get arrested, I’d get a slap on the hand and no one would say anything about recovery,” Rowe said. “I truly believe I would have been receptive about going into a recovery program before I got to where I was at. It was pretty much, “Today, you pay us more money and then go about your way.”
More funding sought
The growing number of addicts has prompted a cross section of people across the state to call for more funding for treatment.
The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has made funding for substance abuse treatment a top priority.
Many of the prescription drug abusers of a few years ago have become the heroin abusers of today, said Marla Highbaugh, spokeswoman for The Healing Place.
And many are young, between the ages of 18-25, because they started abusing prescription drugs as teenagers, Highbaugh said.
“It is bringing them in young, and they’re losing control quicker,” Highbaugh said.
When the General Assembly takes up the budget next year, many, including Highbaugh, hope it funds more facilities throughout the state like the Healing Place.
The state has 10 centers modeled after The Healing Place. The administration of Gov. Ernie Fletcher started in 2007 the Recovery Kentucky program that oversees the 10 residential facilities, which includes Transitions Grateful Life Center for Men in Erlanger and Brighton Center for Women in Florence. Two more facilities, one in Bowling Green and one in Hindman, will start construction next month.
The program houses addicts for six to nine months and has people who have gone through the program work at the facility to help keep costs down and support fellow addicts. The Kentucky Department of Corrections, Section 8 and Community Development provide a bulk of the $800,000 budget for each facility.
Funding for Recovery Kentucky, which doesn’t provide medical services, and medical drug treatment programs needs to increase to meet demand, said Mike Townsend, Recovery Kentucky program director.
“There’s a great need for outpatient treatment programs that are drug free,” Townsend said. “One thing we’re seeing is a huge increase in Suboxone clinics to meet the demand. A result of doctors no longer prescribing narcotics is that people are going to doctors to get Suboxone. That‘’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a narcotic substitute. There needs to be a more drug-free approach.”