Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell heard testimony on Friday from Northern Kentuckians on how to tackle Kentucky’s burgeoning heroin epidemic.
McConnell held court at the Northern Kentucky Area Development District building for a 90-minute discussion that featured panelists with first-hand knowledge of the drug’s impact, including law enforcement officials, opiate treatment specialists, educators and a recovering heroin addict.
McConnell told reporters that he supports a strategy that combines incarcerating drug offenders, then placing them into addiction treatment programs.
“The conclusion you draw from listening to the experts, some emphasize treatment, some talk about incarceration, I think it probably takes a combination of both,” McConnell said. “We know this is a scourge, and it’s been particularly challenging here in Northern Kentucky.”
McConnell’s comments draw a slight contrast with his colleague, Kentucky's Republican junior U.S. Rand Paul, whom has called for a lowering of mandatory sentencing minimums for drug offenders and is an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs.
Kentucky state Sen. Katie Stine was also a featured panelist. A Southgate Republican, Stine has filed Senate Bill 5 in the Kentucky General Assembly that would increase penalties for heroin traffickers and shore up Medicaid funding for drug treatment via federal dollars provided by the Affordable Care Act. The bill passed the state Senate in January by a 36-1 vote, and is currently tabled in the House Judiciary Committee.
Stine said that Medicaid funding of treatment programs is a good way to address the problem because, unlike many alternative funding mechanisms, it can easily cover the kind of long-term care that the panelists said addicts benefit the most from.
“I do believe that it’s not just going to be a short-term thing,” Stine said. “That Medicaid is actually going to be there, to help the folks who are Medicaid-eligible to get through this.”
Regarding Stine’s bill, McConnell said he doesn’t offer support for state-level legislation on general principle, and he dodged a question on the issue of funding treatment for heroin by the Affordable Care Act, which he has been an ardent opponent of.
“The Affordable Care Act is 2,700-page bill,” McConnell said. “Frankly, nobody knows what’s in it, so I can’t answer your question.”
Law enforcement officials on the panel advocated continued incarceration for heroin addicts. Rob Sanders, a commonwealth’s attorney for Kenton County, said that over 80 percent of violent, property and other crimes in his district are attributable to heroin abuse.
“The results in Kenton County alone have been hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage, serious injuries and at least one death that I’m aware of,” Sanders said.
The panelists characterized Kentucky’s heroin epidemic—specifically Northern Kentucky, whose Boone, Kenton and Campbell Counties account for more than 60 percent of the state’s heroin prosecutions—as among the worst in the U.S.. From 2012 to 2013, heroin overdose deaths in the state increased by 550 percent, according to data from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
Experts also cited a study by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Alcohol and Drug Control Research, which found that the state loses about $6 billion each year due to costs associated with alcohol and drug abuse.
McConnell said he will use the information gleaned from the panel to inform the U.S. Senate’s Drug Caucus later this month.