Higdon: Is marijuana enforcement a good use of state’s limited funding?

14th District State Senator

Monday, Aug. 27, 2018 — The opioid epidemic plaguing the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and much of the country, is one of the biggest challenges our society faces today. The number of fatal overdoses in the state continues to rise. According to the recently released 2017 Overdose Fatality Report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, 1,565 individuals died as a result of a drug overdose, an increase of 11.5 percent from 2016.


The report breaks down which drugs were present in the toxicology results, with the synthetic opioid fentanyl leading the way. Fentanyl, an opioid that can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, was found in more than 50 percent of the fatal overdose cases. Its presence in these occurrences has skyrocketed with a 47 percent increase over the cases from 2016.

Heroin, which was previously one of the biggest scourges for the state, was found to be in decline with 34 percent less appearances. However, methamphetamine doubled its presence from 2016, being found in 29 percent of the overdose cases. Action has been taken in the state to try and combat these destructive substances, but there is plenty of work to still be done.

The 2017 Regular Session saw a number of drug-related bills pass, including one limiting the amount of prescribed opioids allowed and another increasing penalties for heroin traffickers. While these bills are unlikely to solve the entire problem, we in the General Assembly hope they will be another weapon in this war.

The Kentucky General Assembly began to combat our state’s pill-abuse crisis in 2009, starting with Senate Bill (SB) 4 which dealt with the creation of a substance abuse recovery program for felony substance abuse offenders. At that time, in Kentucky the rate of heroin-related deaths was less than half the national average: 0.3 deaths from heroin for every 100,000 people in the state.

In 2010, two drug-related bills passed the General Assembly. Senate Bill 106, which prohibited the cultivation, possession, or trafficking of certain drugs, was passed with House Bill (HB) 265, which strengthened Driving Under the Influence laws. That same year, the national level of heroin-related deaths dropped slightly while Kentucky’s more than doubled—putting it on par with the national level. In 2011 the state followed a similar trend, passing HB 121 and HB 463. These bills prohibit certain drugs and strengthened laws pertaining to possession.

A more aggressive targeting of certain drugs was seen in 2012—including meth, opioids, and synthetic—in SB 3, HB 1, and HB 481. But while stronger laws and penalties were enforced on these drugs, another drug took hold. That year Kentucky’s heroin-related deaths tripled from 2011’s rate (rising to 3.1 deaths for every 100,000 people) and overcame the national average that year (1.9 deaths for every 100,000 people).

Two drug-related bills, HB 8 and HB 217, were passed in 2013. They expanded the definition of and punishment for synthetic drugs and clarified statutes relating to treatments for drug addiction. But the heroin deaths continued to rise, nearly doubling the national rate in 2013. Senate Bill 47 passed in 2014 and requires increased reporting of public health statistics. Kentucky’s heroin deaths still rose above the national average but at a less rapid pace than previous years.

In 2015, along with SB 54 and HB 24—both drug-related bills addressing substance abuse treatment for pregnant women and dextromethorphan abuse—the General Assembly passed the first modern heroin bill. Senate Bill 192 created new penalties for the trafficking of heroin and fentanyl, in addition to expanding access to naloxone (designed to treat an overdose in an emergency scenario) and providing “Good Samaritan” immunity to protect overdose victims and their caretakers from drug charges. The General Assembly also opened the door to needle exchanges.

We also passed a law back in 2004 called “Casey’s Law” that helps families and friends obtain involuntary treatment for loved ones who are struggling with substance abuse. I encourage you to visit caseyslaw.org or contact my office to learn more about helping your loved ones heal from addiction.

I am concerned that the effort we exert to fight a war on marijuana is hampering our attempts to eradicate the opioid addiction crisis. Our law enforcement agencies have limited resources to fight drug abuse, and yet nearly 25 percent of drug arrests in Kentucky continue to be for marijuana. These arrests, for a substance that is legal in other states, clog our court system and our jails. Both time and money would be more wisely spent battling substances that continue to ruin the lives of more Kentuckians every year. The Legislature and law enforcement leadership should review our drug-enforcement priorities based on the reality of limited resources we have available to us.

The opioid crisis that we currently face is one of the trying obstacles of our time. We must continue to combat these destructive substances, and provide aid to those who have fallen victim to them. I look forward to continuing this discussion with members of our community, law enforcement, judiciary officials, faith leaders, and most importantly, family members who have been impacted by this epidemic.

What steps do you think need to be taken to combat the opioid problem? Share with me on Facebook or on Twitter @SenatorJimmy.

If you have any questions or comments about these issues or any other public policy issue, please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181, on my home phone at 270-692-6945, or email me at Jimmy.Higdon@LRC.ky.gov. You can also review the Legislature’s work online at www.lrc.ky.gov.


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