There is no disagreement that Kentucky is in need of improved heroin legislation. Last year, 230 people lost their lives due to a heroin overdose. Over half of those were from Jefferson County making heroin deaths twice as common as homicide in Louisville. The 2015 legislative session provides our best opportunity to pass comprehensive legislation and as we wind down to the last few weeks, it will be necessary for both Chambers to come together and create a compromise to finally pass a good bill.
The House and Senate are at odds regarding the severity of punishing heroin “dealers”. Seven Counties advocates for stronger treatment requirements rather than stiffer criminal sentences. A quick Google search on why treatment would be better than extended punishment returns hundreds of examples of successful treatment programs around the country. Recidivist drug offenders may spend years in and out of prison, costing the legal and penal systems thousands of dollars while an evidence based substance abuse treatment program lasts several months and costs only a small fraction of total incarceration costs. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center Poll shows that two-thirds of Americans would like to see illegal drug offenders enter programs that focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, correctly viewing drug use as a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. At Seven Counties Services, one of this region’s largest providers of services for people addicted to heroin, we see the truth in this every day. With good treatment, recovery from heroin addiction is possible and we know many former addicts that are now strong, drug-free, and contributing members of society. If we are genuinely interested in decreasing the impact of heroin on our community, the thing to remember is that treatment works, punishment is not always the answer. While we agree that law enforcement should have leeway in deciding on final charges, we are in agreement that severe punishment is not the answer for most of the heroin users in our state.
As we have seen in example after example this session, the make-up of heroin users has changed significantly. Heroin use now crosses all socio-economic classes. It doesn’t discriminate by income level, race, or ethnicity and its effects kill our citizens and tear their families apart. Heroin is so addictive that the user is often unable to stop without intervention. Incarceration is not the answer for a young adult or consumer who is so addicted that they would do “anything” to continue using. Nationally, complications and injuries from the use and abuse of illicit substances like heroin and cocaine cost our health care system more than $12 billion annually. Community Mental Health centers are experts at addiction treatment and therapy and are ready to work collaboratively with the Department of Corrections to provide needed treatment and wrap around services to reduce the recidivism and relapse rate and well as the cost to our community in care, incarceration and in family stress.
Also at odds between the two chambers is the idea of a needle exchange program. Simply put, creating this program is one way of “doing less harm”. The Centers for Disease Control suggests “powerful effects from needle exchange programs….studies show reduction in risk behavior as high as 80%”. Further the estimated cost of a needle exchange program per person is calculated between $4,000 – $12,000, far less than the estimated cost of $190,000 medical costs of treating a person infected with HIV or Hepatitis C. And we agree with Governor Beshear that a needle exchange will not encourage more drug use.
Heroin addiction is a non-partisan public health emergency that must be addressed now. 2015 should be the year we provide treatment to eradicate the heroin epidemic that is leaving a far too high death toll in its wake. We all benefit when our citizens who are using heroin have better access to treatment.
Anthony Zipple, ScD, MBA is president and CEO at Seven Counties Services.