FRANKFORT - The Kentucky Senate passed a bill Thursday to combat a deadly surge in heroin addiction, a trend blamed for devastating families while putting a burden on courts and police in hard-hit areas.
The measure, a mix of additional treatment for addicts and harsher punishment for higher-volume heroin dealers, cleared the Senate on a 36-0 vote.
It came on the same day that a Senate committee reviewing the measure was urged to take action by a judge, a nurse, a police chief and the father of a man who died of a heroin overdose.
The scope of the problem is statewide, but Kentucky's northernmost counties situated near Cincinnati have been especially hard hit by the rise in heroin addiction.
"Overdoses have become a daily occurrence in northern Kentucky," said Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, a northern Kentucky Republican and the bill's lead sponsor. "Heroin has overwhelmed our court system, jails, police departments and social service networks."
The bill now heads to the House, where the measure's leading supporter is House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat.
Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway also have urged action. Beshear noted in his recent State of the Commonwealth speech that overdose deaths involving heroin rose from 22 across Kentucky in 2011 to 170 in the first nine months of 2013.
The bill calls for tougher punishment for higher-volume heroin traffickers. They would have to serve more of their prison sentences before becoming eligible for parole.
They currently have to serve up to one-fifth of their sentences before reaching parole eligibility. The bill would require them to serve at least half their sentences before becoming parole eligible.
Campbell District Judge Karen Thomas said heroin addiction is "a true crisis" in her part of northern Kentucky, and she urged tough action against dealers.
"If we don't cut the head off that snake, deal with that trafficking issue, we will be inundated with this problem for quite a long time," Thomas told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
On the treatment side, the bill would require the Kentucky Medicaid program to pay for a range of substance-abuse treatment. It also would direct that part of the money saved from the state's 2011 corrections reform law be used to fund treatment and anti-drug education programs.
The bill also seeks to increase the availability of a drug that can help reverse the effects of heroin overdoses.