FRANKFORT - The Kentucky state legislature passed a sweeping overhaul to its prescription drug law in the summer of 2012 after a flood of overdose deaths, making it significantly harder for people to access dangerous addictive drugs from doctors.
Now it appears Kentuckians have turned to heroin dealers instead.
A new report from the state Office of Drug Control Policy shows heroin overdose deaths in Kentucky increased 60 percent in 2013. In 2011, 22 people died from heroin overdoses in Kentucky. By 2013, that number has risen to 230.
"Prescription pain killers - opioids - pharmacologically are similar to heroin," said Van Ingram, executive director of Kentucky's Office of Drug Control Policy. "Now here comes along a cheaper, more available alternative."
Overall overdose deaths in Kentucky remained steady in 2013. But heroin accounted for 32 percent of the state's 1,007 overdose deaths, up from 20 percent in 2012.
"I've never seen it jump that high of a particular substance in one year," Ingram said. "We are losing far too many in Kentucky to a preventable death."
Heroin became the cause du jour of the 2014 state legislative session that ended in April. The governor, attorney general and leaders from both parties pushed for a bill that would strengthen penalties for heroin traffickers while increasing state spending on drug treatment programs. But the bill died at midnight on the legislature's final day, with House lawmakers squabbling over procedural decorum as the clock ran out.
Republican Senate President Robert Stivers called on Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to call the legislature back for a special session to pass heroin legislation. But Beshear declined, citing fighting among party leaders that would not make a special session fruitful.
A handful of lawmakers have been crafting bills in the interim to introduce for the 2015 session that begins in January. And so far the two parties appear to have not reached a consensus.
Republican state Sen. John Schickel of Union has filed a bill that would increase criminal penalties for heroin traffickers and require that they serve at least 50 percent of their sentence before they are eligible for parole or probation. Schickel said the bill would correct a 2011 law that reduced penalties for heroin traffickers as part of a broad sentencing reform law designed to reduce prison costs.
"When we lowered those penalties ... that very year we saw the deaths go up. They've been going up ever since. I don't think that's just a coincidence," said Schickel, a former police officer and U.S. Marshal. "We might as well put signs up on the bridge saying 'Welcome heroin dealers.'"
But Democratic state Rep. John Burch of Louisville said increasing criminal penalties is the wrong approach, saying the state would be better off treating people for drug addiction than putting them in prison.
Burch says he is crafting legislation that would dramatically increase spending on state drug treatment programs by as much as $25 million.