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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

OPINION: Priorities Need Changed in Fight Against Heroin

County and state legislators still disagree over how to combat NKY's continuing heroin problem/CC 

by Tyler Owen
Campbell County GOP

The art of asking questions is a complex one, a complicated fabric of challenging actions, seeking wisdom, furthering knowledge, and obtaining a greater picture of muddied situations.  The American culture has always tended to obtusely simplify this art.  Inconsequential inquiries, popular interrogatories laced with “buzzwords,” and soap box testimony poised at furthering agendas posing demands framed with a question mark at the end have taken the place of true knowledge seeking.  Two of the largest causes behind this have been seen in the Kentucky state government’s attempts at curbing addiction, specifically heroin addiction at this time.  These thought strategies are “group think” and “chest beating.”  These have leaded us to ask poor questions and come to answers resulting in possible solutions that will prove to be ineffective.

Three popular solutions to the heroin addiction problem have arisen in our state: the stiffening of sentences handed out to traffickers, the proliferation of the life-saving drug naloxone, and the establishment and fostering of treatment programs in jail.  These have been at the forefront of legislation proposed in the last eighteen months to combat the rise of heroin use in Kentucky, especially Louisville, Lexington, and the three north-most counties of Boone, Kenton, and Campbell.  These are over-prioritized.  Several iterations of the same legislation have arisen, all sharing the stiffening of sentences.

When it comes to the harshening of length of imprisonment of convicted traffickers, our legislation has been misguided by poor pursuit of the question of how it should help subside the prevalence of heroin.  The answer to their question of how the tides will be turned was a variation of arresting and prosecuting our way out of the problem.  It is a hardline tactic, a form of “chest beating.” “Don’t come to our state because we don’t take kindly to traffickers” is the inferred message.  And nothing shows a bigger influence of “group think” than this idea, and it has crossed party lines.

The fact that this is the unanimous first response does not make sense.  It is the repeating of one of the very mistakes that has leaded us to this epidemic of heroin addiction in the first place.  Prescription pain medication saw a surge in abuse due to over-prescription in the 1990s and 2000s. Hardline efforts, including the introduction of the medication-tracking program KASPER, quickly shut down large sources of illegal supplies of these medications.  The unwanted result was addicts without a supply turning to heroin, a now cheap, accessible, and effective alternative.  This pattern proves the theory borrowed from economics that taking away supply does not mean the removal of demand.  If there are two restaurants offering pizza on the same street, the closure of one does not mean customers will now go without pizza.  Also, this is all assuming stiffening sentences will deter traffickers.

The risk of prison-time is real for drug traffickers in Kentucky.  That has been, is, and will continue to be the case.  Increasing the length of time-served for trafficking convictions will not be as large of a deterrent as expected.  There is currently no state which lets drug traffickers walk away from being arrested.  The state government is not threating these particular criminals with something unknown.  Yes, it may sway some small-scale operations to leave, but the major traffickers know the risks.  That is part of investing in a business venture.  This is not to say that traffickers should not be punished harshly.  They absolutely should.  But to hang the entire issue on this line of thinking is irresponsible.
In regard to naloxone, also known as narcan, the issue is more complex than advertised.  Yes, naloxone is a rescue drug that, when properly administered, more likely than not will save the life of an overdose victim.  Yes, it should be carried on every life squad.  Yes, it should be given to civilians.

The prioritization issue is that most life squads do carry it already and it is being given to civilians.  If further legislation is going to be issued in regard to the drug, it should be to require training and licensing for every individual carrying it.  Also, to ensure the administering drug, it would be wise to seek legislation granting immunity from possession charges to any individual who calls 911 to assist an overdose victim.  These are the issues that need to be prioritized when discussing naloxone.
Jail treatment programs are the epitome of “buzzword” right now when discussing this issue on a county level, and with Senator Chris McDaniel’s proposed legislation, now the state level as well.  Campbell County Jail is at the forefront of this topic.  The fiscal court’s answer to the staggering numbers of heroin users is to grow and foster such a program in the jail.  This is a great idea.  It is just not a great flagship program.

It can be argued that the majority of users never enter county jail.  This may be false in some counties, but it is a valid argument in all.  It is also ignorant to view all addicts as criminals that will end up in jail.  Addicts are victims of a disease.  Some turn to crime just as non-addicts turn to crime.  It is just easier with addicts to point out their motivation.  This is not to say that possession should be legal.  This is to state that to identify addicts as less than others based on their addiction is exactly the thinking that prevents many from getting clean.  It must also be noted that addicts, regardless of substance, are most likely to become sober when they reach “rock-bottom.” Unfortunately heroin is usually fatal before that point is reached.  We cannot wait for addicts to end up in jail to treat them, especially when many will never end up there.

The issues that deserve the highest priority include increased support and funding to treatment clinics, the rigorous evaluation of use of these funds to prevent profit being more desired than progress, the legalization and support of clean needle exchange programs, and the widespread and in-depth education of our communities and children on addiction.  All these points aim at decreasing demand and lowering the user pool.  More and better treatment clinics are needed.  That should be obvious.  But how these clinics operate is just as important.  All treatment options should be on the table for an individual addict and treatment should follow a path designed to assist in getting clean, not in making a profit.  Institutions such as NorthKey in the northern area of the state need to be dealt with using the highest scrutiny.  These organizations can do great work, but they must still be made accountable to the tax payers who help fund them.

Clean needle exchange is a very sensitive issue.  The declaration that an organization will knowingly invite users in and supply them with needles intended to inject heroin into their system raises eyebrows.  But what goes unsaid many times is that programs dealing with clean needle exchange prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other diseases while also giving addicts a chance to seek treatment.  The numbers speak for themselves.  The Northern Kentucky Health Department serves roughly four hundred thousand people and reported over fifty new cases of acute hepatitis C in 2012.  King County Health Department in Washington State serves over two million.  They reported 4 cases in 2012.  The NKHD does not have the ability to offer clean needle exchange.  The KCHD does and has one of the world’s foremost programs.  Again, the numbers speak for themselves.

Education is also a necessity now.  Focusing on preventing the growth of our user population is the only way the addiction problem will truly subside.  All aspects of addiction and all types of substances must be addressed.  Authority figures can be involved, but the most effective individuals in educating children on addiction are recovering addicts.  These people know truly what this issue involves.  Utilizing their knowledge is necessary.

The priorities in our legislature are currently disorganized.  It is now time to change that.  All issues regarding addiction need to be addressed in proper order and by asking the right questions and getting insightful answers.  It is time Kentucky ends ignorance towards addictions and gets to work.

Tyler Owen is a member of the GOP Facts Committee, a political action committee formed in reaction to an attempted overhaul of Campbell County Republican leadership earlier this year. 

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