Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from an apparent heroin overdose should help focus public attention on the rapidly growing menace that dangerous drug presents. Kentucky's General Assembly and its Attorney General Jack Conway are confronting the problem.
Hoffman was a brilliant, gifted performer who will be greatly missed by his fans. Lots of other less public lives are being lost and ruined by heroin even as discussion of legalizing marijuana dominates the day's substance-related debate.
This demon of a drug has done its worst by swelling ranks of Kentuckians. Rare indeed are those who have escaped its devastating effects on themselves, family, friends, neighbors, or acquaintances. The plague has been particularly acute in Northern Kentucky.
According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, "The increase in heroin abuse and trafficking in communities across Kentucky is devastating."
That office says heroin was to blame for 36 percent of the staggering 639 overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2013 in Kentucky. The state authorities add, "The Kentucky State Police crime lab has gone from processing 451 confiscated samples of heroin in 2011 to 2,382 samples during the first nine months of 2013."
This comes after a 650 percent increase in overdose deaths in Kentucky from over 2011. Politicians from both parties have come together to tackle the problem on a bipartisan basis.
With the backing of Democrats Conway and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley of Hopkinsville, State Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, a Republican from Southgate, introduced Senate Bill 5. Stine says, "The bill targets two different groups: the trafficker, who needs to be run out of Kentucky or locked up; and the addict, who has broken the law but has created their own personal prison of addiction that is worse than any jail this state could design and needs treatment."
SB 5 is a multi-pronged approach. It toughens sentences for trafficking more than 4 grams of heroin, lets prosecutors charge traffickers with homicide when an overdose causes death, and expands treatment options. Other provisions would let emergency personnel carry a drug to counter overdoses, grant immunity from certain drug charges for someone who alerts authorities of an overdose situation, and, perhaps most controversially, eliminates as a defense in an overdose case that the decedent voluntarily ingested the drug or that there was no direct contact between the decedent and the defendant.
The Senate has already passed SB 5 by a 36-0 vote. Sen. Perry Clark, a Louisville Democrat, passed. The Courier-Journal quoted Clark as saying, "We've got a 30-year war on drugs, and we've hammered and we've increased penalties ... and it really hasn't helped the war on drugs at all."
The bill now awaits action in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives where a predecessor measure ran in to trouble last time. Citizens should contact their legislators to urge prompt passage of this important response to a true crisis.
Last November, Geoffrey Norman wrote an extremely powerful piece in The Weekly Standard entitled "Down and Out in Vermont: Heroin in the Hills." It chronicled how heroin had taken hold in that state, which is not unlike Kentucky in many respects. You can read it here: http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/down-and-out-vermont_764688.html.
Norman says that Vermont does not seem the sort of place for a heroin problem, but the drug is now everywhere (as evidenced by the fact that the governor devoted his entire State of the State speech to the subject). In words that might soon apply to Kentucky, if they do not already, Norman says:
There is no political constituency for heroin. If the political right sees it as a problem of law and order and the left views it as a public health matter and takes a more therapeutic approach - well, Vermont is trying both. Trying nobly and very hard, and yet â ¦ if you live here, you read the stories in the papers and talk to your neighbors about the 19 burglaries in town and the 20 arrests in the next little town down the road, and you wonder if either approach - or, indeed, both - has a chance.
The time for Kentucky to act was years ago. We must act now, not only by enacting SB 5, but by sounding a broad and loud societal alarm about the heroin menace.
Kentucky still has problems with other substances, of course, ranging from alcohol to methamphetamine to pain pills and other narcotics. But heroin is a special kind of bad.
So RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman. Thanks for the wonderful cinematic memories. May your death be not in vain by helping save others from the same sad fate.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.