COVINGTON, Ky. — It's a common occurrence across Kentucky: Someone overdoses on drugs, calls for help and is then arrested for possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia.
But faced with alarming increases in heroin overdose deaths, some state Republican lawmakers want to exempt overdose victims and anyone who witnesses an overdose from being charged with possession crimes. The exemption would only apply if the people immediately sought help from public safety officials, and a person could only use it once in his or her lifetime.
The proposal is part of the latest effort to combat heroin in a state that has seen its usage and related crimes skyrocket ever since lawmakers made it tougher to get prescription pain killers. In the two years since Kentucky enacted a sweeping overhaul its prescription painkiller laws, heroin overdose deaths have risen more than tenfold. State lawmakers filed numerous bills to combat the problem, but none passed in the 2014 session despite broad support from both parties.
"This should be another tool to keep people from dying, and that's what we're after," Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel said during a Friday news conference at the Kenton County Detention Center.
If it passes, Kentucky would join 20 other states and the District of Columbia that have enacted similar laws, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The proposal comes as Kentucky has seen fewer people using the state's drug court, an intensive treatment program that is an alternative to incarceration. Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton has urged lawmakers to give users an incentive to use the program, which he said national studies have shown reduces the chances someone will be arrested again on drug charges.
McDaniel said his proposal would not hurt the state's treatment efforts, noting the exemption was limited to once per lifetime. Also, the bill would add about $7.5 million to drug treatment programs at county jails and an additional $5.8 million to community mental health centers.
"We started with the simple question of ... at what point in the cycle of addiction is an addict most likely to be responsive to treatment?" McDaniel said. "The most likely impetus would be when a person is arrested."
Jess Tomlin said the treatment program, along with the assurance of avoiding prosecution for reporting an overdose, most likely would have helped her sister, 24-year-old Tabatha Roland, who she said was arrested four or five times before dying of a drug overdose in 2013.
"She sat in jail for eight months. What was she doing in jail? Learning from other addicts," she said. "If she would have had treatment in jail I definitely think she would have (done well)."
The bill would also direct Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor and disabled, to pay for substance abuse treatment programs. And it would toughen penalties for heroin dealers, who could go to jail for up to 10 years for trafficking in any amount of heroin.
"Let the word go forth that if you traffic in heroin in Kentucky you're going to go to prison for a long time," state Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, a co-sponsor of the bill. "I feel confident that is going to serve as a deterrent to get rid of the horrible supply problem we have right now and the economic incentive we have for people to come to Kentucky to deal in heroin."
Schickel and state Rep. Diane St. Onge, R-Lakeside Park, joined McDaniel to announce the bill on Friday. Missing were House Democrats, who control the lower chamber. McDaniel said House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, had input in crafting the bill. McDaniel and others said they are confident the bill will pass this year.