FRANKFORT – Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several public events in our area that, at their core, are designed to achieve one key thing: Help more Kentuckians overcome their battle against drug addiction.
I have often said that you should be very thankful if you do not know someone waging this fight, because there are too many of us who do know someone. We have seen first-hand what kind of devastation addiction causes to those caught in its deadly grip and the impact it has on their family and friends and the community at large.
I attended some of these public events with Attorney General Andy Beshear, who formally presented checks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to Hope in the Mountains, WestCare Kentucky and Mountain Comprehensive Care Center. This money, appropriated through the two-year budget the General Assembly approved earlier this year, comes from a settlement with Purdue Pharma, a case I started when I was Attorney General. I was proud to play a leading role in holding that company accountable for not doing enough to counter the wave of prescription drug abuse we have seen unfold.
The Mountain Center for Recovery and Hope plays a major role in helping to keep that devastation from spreading, and on Monday, it took a major step forward by showcasing its new facility. A lot of people and organizations deserve praise for making this possible, and I am confident it will more than exceed its potential.
These announcements came around the same time that the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy released its latest annual report on drug addiction.
According to that report, Floyd County saw 16 die from overdoses in 2015, which was down from 21 the year before. Over the past four years, we have lost more than 70 people to overdoses, giving us one of the highest per-person averages among the 120 counties. That trend is the reason why I hosted a public forum last fall to discuss ways we could counter these numbers.
Statewide, the report shows that a relatively new drug – fentanyl – has fast become a major problem here in Kentucky. It was a factor in 420 fatal overdoses in 2015, up from 121 in 2014. This is a synthetic cousin to heroin, but is up to 50 times more powerful. It is often mixed with heroin, but many addicts are not aware of this and are dying in greater numbers as a result.
Kentucky has taken several major steps over the years to bring down all of the deadly numbers associated with illegal drug use.
A little more than a decade ago, we were the first state in the nation to put prescription-drug monitoring online, enabling prescribers and law enforcement alike to better track abuse more quickly. We then boosted that tool in 2012 with my legislation that countered prescription-drug abuse. A study by the University of Kentucky found that this law cut doctor-shopping in half and all but stopped the fly-by-night pain clinics known as “pill mills.” When I was Attorney General, I also worked with the General Assembly to push back against shady internet-based pharmacies.
Last year, we enacted a multi-pronged law focused on heroin. This measure significantly stiffened penalties for traffickers and provided $10 million in new funding for a variety of programs, which will get $32 million more over the next two fiscal years.
That money is expanding substance-abuse treatment in our correctional systems and community health centers. It is helping transition addicted newborns back home, and it is increasing use of Vivitrol, which can keep heroin addicts clean by blocking the drug’s effect. Social workers are also receiving more money to expand successful alternative-sentencing programs.
This year, the General Assembly passed a law targeting the latest round of synthetic drugs that are much stronger than before. Now, those convicted of either possessing or selling them will face much longer sentences.
All of these actions are providing a coordinated front as we try to turn back the illegal drug epidemic, but this is not something that can be accomplished by a single law or level of government. It will take continued vigilance in both treatment and law enforcement, education and cooperation across agencies to maintain the gains we have made – and to make sure we’re ready if another front in this battle opens up. Our region, I am proud to say, has many citizens who are committed to doing their part – and they are making a true difference.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.