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Kentucky officials look for local solutions to heroin problem

BY RAE HODGEAssociated Press

FRANKFORT - After a bill aimed at stemming Kentucky's growing heroin problem failed to pass during the state's legislative session, officials say local solutions to the statewide problem are limited but that they are pushing ahead

Dr. Bonnie Hedrick is the coordinator of the Northern Kentucky Agency for Drug Abuse Policy. Although lawmakers decided against the bill that would've provided a needle exchange program, Hedrick is pushing for needle cleanup efforts. Likewise, first responders did not get authorization to carry an overdose antidote, so she's urging area doctors to prescribe it to addicts.

"We contacted every police department through our local courts to make the areas where the Easter Egg Hunts are going to be held are clean of needles," Hedrick said. "If they are held in a public park, for example, or an area where they know there is drug activity and is open to the public, we want to make sure those areas are clean for children and families."

"We're going to be tracking those needles, where they are, how many there are, in an effort to educate our legislators and the public in regards to not only their own personal safety but also the need for this type of protection strategy," said Hedrick, who was recently notified of a police officer being stuck with a heroin needle during a pat-down of a suspect.

Hedrick would like to see the governor's office or state health department declare a health emergency over the problem. Although she said she isn't sure whether that would unlock funding or law enforcement options, but that she is "hoping that it would at least draw attention at the very highest levels to establish policy, procedures and funding for the strategies that we know work. We know that this is our only recourse right now."

Although widely praised across party lines in the Kentucky Legislature, a provision of the anti-heroin bill allowing first responders to carry the antidote Naloxone died when the bill failed to pass at the final hour. Hedrick says her organization's response has been to push local physicians to prescribe it, as legally permitted, to more heroin abusers and their family members.

Bill Mark, director of Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force, says that while he remains hopeful Gov. Steve Beshear will call the Legislature back for a special session to consider the bill, until then his organization has few tools to fight the 650 percent statewide increase in heroin overdoses.

Mark, along with other law enforcement officials in Kentucky, regularly track heroin trafficking from Kentucky back to Cincinnati, and then to Detroit.

"We communicate with law enforcement in Cincinnati probably a daily basis but there's been no discussion as far as anything we can do, or as far as (the heroin overdose antidote) Naloxone," said Mark. "We can continue to move forward as far as laying the groundwork and developing a training model. The only thing we can do is be prepared to move forward as soon as a law is passed. But until a law is passed, nothing can really be done."

In Kentucky's Office of Drug Control Policy, executive director Van Ingram said he is disappointed by the General Assembly's lack of action and is concerned that heroin-related deaths may continue to rise in the interim.

"Getting Naloxone in the hands of officers and first responders certainly would have saved lives," said Ingram. "But the grassroots efforts and the community efforts that are coming out of northern Kentucky are excellent, and I just hope that we don't lose the momentum. And that they continue the good work that they've done so far, educating people and making this a high priority issue."

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