Key lawmakers from the Republican Senate and Democratic House are scheduled to meet Thursday to try to cobble together an agreement on legislation to address the growing heroin addiction and trafficking problems.
They’re apparently close to agreement, having resolved several issues which originally divided the two chambers. But the remaining disagreements won’t be easy to overcome.
Nonetheless, key players in the negotiations remain optimistic.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman. Westerfield said the two sides have narrowed differences on provisions to distribute the drug Naloxone which can reverse the effects of an overdose and a “Good Samaritan” provision which would encourage witnesses to call for medical help in cases of overdoses.
The biggest obstacles continue to be the House provision for locally optional needle-exchange programs which research indicates reduce transmission of blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis C, and secondly, the Senate’s position on treating sales of any amount of heroin as a Class C trafficking offense.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, from northern Kentucky, an area hit particularly hard by the heroin epidemic. McDaniel is also a candidate in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor which causes some House Democrats indigestion.
The House bill is sponsored by Westerfield’s counterpart, House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.
When the two chambers failed to reconcile their differences at the end of last week’s legislative sessions, each chamber appointed members to a conference committee which will try to reach agreement before the session reconvenes for two days next week.
Westerfield and Tilley are from the same county, know each other, and have collaborated on other legislation. Both of them began working with McDaniel, Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, and others last May on crafting a heroin bill.
“I think there is a great deal of trust between (Westerfield and Tilley),”
McGarvey said. But that’s not the only hopeful sign he sees. The make-up of the conference committee itself encourages him.
“You’ve got senators – and I think the same is true on the House side – who’ve shown they’re willing to reach across party lines to get things done.”
McGarvey is encouraged also that Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is co-chairing the conference committee, believing that’s an indication Stivers is determined to find a resolution.
The Republican Senators have doubts about the House position on treating sales of heroin in amounts of 2 grams or less as a Class D felony. At the same time, the House is reluctant to charge scores of addicts who “peddle” drugs to support their habits with an offense which could fill prisons, especially after the progress in reducing prison populations and costs while reducing recidivism resulting from a reform of sentencing laws in 2011, legislation sponsored by Tilley.
Tilley said it’s important not to forget those gains in the heat of debate about how to respond to the growing heroin problem.
“Decades of research has proven that increasing penalties does not reduce drug abuse or drug trafficking or crime,” he said. Kentucky’s current trafficking sentences are “among the toughest in the nation” already, he said, exceeding those of Ohio and surrounding states.
Westerfield understands those concerns. But as a former prosecutor in Christian County, he’s also seen “entrepreneurial traffickers” who traffic just under 2 grams to avoid stiffer penalties.
“The art of this will be to find a way to give enough room (to prosecutors) that we can capture all of the people we need to catch and also to help all those we need to help,” Westerfield said.
The House attempted to address some of the Senate’s concern over trafficking by creating a three-tier system of offenses: Class D felony for sales of 2 grams or less; Class C felony for sales of 60 grams; and a new, Class B felony for sales of a kilogram or more. It also requires those convicted of trafficking serve 50 percent of sentences before becoming eligible for parole.
One way to compromise might be to treat a 60-gram aggregate of multiple sales within a 90-day period as a Class D felony. Tilley said he might be open to such an approach and he remains “as optimistic as I’ve ever been” that the two sides can reach a deal.
McGarvey is open to finding a compromise on commercial trafficking in small amounts.
“If there is a deterrent element there for the true traffickers, we can come up with something,” McGarvey said.