Pubdate: Fri, 01 Jan 2016
Source: Courier-Journal, The (Louisville, KY)
Copyright: 2016 The Courier-Journal
Author: Mike Wynn


FRANKFORT, Ky. - Kentucky's evolving battle with drug abuse will 
continue into the 2016 General Assembly as lawmakers intensify 
efforts against synthetic drugs that can slip into communities via 
the Internet, wreaking sudden havoc.

The legislature has enacted at least four bills targeting synthetics 
since 2010 and is seeking to amp up penalties for traffickers next 
year following an outbreak in Lewis County of the toxic synthetic 
drug called "flakka."

"They are no less dangerous than anything else out there, and in many 
cases, more dangerous," said Van Ingram, head of the state Office of 
Drug Control Policy. "It seems to pop up in a certain community and 
makes a run for a short time. Then it fizzles out there and shows up 
somewhere else."

Synthetic drugs are chemically engineered to mimic the effects of 
other controlled substances, ranging from marijuana to 
methamphetamine. Some products are smoked and others injected, and 
experts warn that the drugs can produce severe and unexpected side-effects.

Officials say that flakka, known chemically as Alpha-PVP, provides a 
prolonged euphoria and a stimulant response more intense than meth. 
Users can experience a racing heart rate, aggression and delusions, 
and in some cases reactions may cause death.

The Courier-Journal profiled the drug's spread and devastating 
effects in Lewis County in September.

Right now, trafficking synthetics in Kentucky can result in a Class A 
misdemeanor charge for the first offense and a Class D felony for 
subsequent offenses.

But lawmakers propose to stiffen the penalty next year so that 
traffickers can be charged with a Class D felony for the first 
offense, punishable by up to five years in prison.

One supporter, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said 
the measure offers bipartisan appeal and already has backing from 
community groups, law enforcement and prosecutors. He said the 
outlook for passing legislation is good.

"There seems to be a tremendous amount of support from across the 
state," he said. "This is a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors 
say they need to help fight what is now easy to get."

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville who chairs 
the Senate Judiciary Committee, may also sponsor legislation in the 
Senate. He cited concerns that the unknown effects of new synthetic 
drugs only make them more dangerous.

"This is something that we need to do," Westerfield said. "The 
penalties are not severe enough for dealing."

Nearly every session of the General Assembly in recent years has 
resulted in laws to combat drug abuse. In 2015, legislation targeted 
the deadly spread of heroin. In 2012, lawmakers passed a bill to 
crack down on prescription pills and meth labs.

"Things are always going to be changing, and we have to be able to 
adapt to that and always be looking at new and different strategies," 
Ingram said. "I don't see that changing any time soon  it's always 
going to be something."

Even the battle with synthetic drugs has changed since lawmakers took 
aim at "synthetic marijuana" in 2010.

At the time, products known as "K2" or "Spice" were available for 
purchase at convenience stores. The General Assembly outlawed the 
substances with laws that treated them with the same severity as marijuana.

A year later, lawmakers focused legislation on new chemicals that 
were marketed as "bath salts" and that produced a high similar to 
ecstasy or meth.

However, drug chemists continued to modify their formulas to 
circumvent the law. And in 2012, the legislature adopted a more 
comprehensive approach, outlawing broad classes of synthetic drugs 
that helped Kentucky stay ahead of manufacturers.

Ingram said synthetics like flakka are now ordered from other 
countries over the Internet and delivered through the mail to a 
dealer's doorstep.

Meanwhile, Kentucky continues to struggle with a high rate of deadly 
drug abuse. According to the state medical examiner's office, 1,087 
people died of a drug overdose in 2014, and the first half of 2015 
mirrored the previous year with 501 overdose deaths.

The overwhelming majority of deaths involve multiple drugs, though 
heroin was present in about 30 percent of cases, Ingram said.

Westerfield, the Senate Judiciary chairman, predicted that lawmakers 
will revisit some aspects of the recent heroin legislation in 2016, 
particularly a law that gives local health departments an option to 
create needle exchanges.

Under the law, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and 
Wellness established a "need-based negotiation model" that encourages 
participants to return old syringes but does not require an actual 
exchange of dirty needles for clean ones.

Officials defend the approach, saying it helps officials remain in 
contact with addicts, prevents the spread of disease and pulls people 
into treatment. But Senate Republicans say a major goal of the 
exchange legislation was to remove dirty needles from city streets and parks.

Westerfield said he expects to see a bill in the General Assembly 
that would tighten the rules for an exchange.

He also said lawmakers will likely review a $10 million allocation 
approved with the heroin bill to help fund substance abuse treatment. 
Legislators will be interested in where the money went, whether it 
was successful and who needs more, he said.

"The Senate is interested in raising the funds for a whole lot of 
things, but I'm not sure we're going to have the money to do it," he 
said. "And I'm not just talking about substance abuse, I'm talking 
about a host of things."


Targeting flakka

Issue: Synthetic drugs, like flakka, continue to crop up in Kentucky 
communities with dangerous effects on users, including aggression, 
delusions, and in some cases, death.

Proposal: Lawmakers propose to stiffen penalties so that traffickers 
can be charged with a Class D felony - punishable with up to five 
years in prison - for the first offense. Currently, a first offense 
can only result in a Class A misdemeanor.

Outlook: The chances of passing legislation appear good. Legislators 
from both the Democratic-led House and the Republican-controlled 
Senate are interested in cracking down on traffickers, and groups 
from law enforcement back the bill.

Recent drug legislation

Synthetic marijuana law, 2010: The General Assembly passed 
legislation targeting synthetic products that were thought to mimic 
the effects of marijuana and often sold at convenience stores as "K2" 
or "Spice." The bill outlawed specific chemical compounds, and deemed 
the sale or manufacture of such drugs a Class A misdemeanor. 
Possession was designated a Class B misdemeanor.

"Bath salts" law, 2011: Lawmakers again took aim at synthetic drugs 
in 2011, criminalizing chemicals that were marketed in convenience 
stores as "bath salts" or plant food even though they produced 
effects similar to methamphetamine or ecstasy. The bill designated 
sales and manufacture a Class A misdemeanor, while possession was 
deemed a Class B misdemeanor.

Broad synthetic drug law, 2012: Legislators revisited synthetic drugs 
again in 2012. But instead of focusing on specific chemical 
compounds, the bill cracked down on broad classes of synthetic 
products. That allowed law enforcement to keep pace as drug 
manufacturers continually tweaked their formulas to avoid 
prosecution. The measure also made sales of the drug a felony upon a 
second offense.

Pseudoephedrine law, 2012: A bill meant to curb methamphetamine - and 
illegal meth labs - limited purchases of over-the-counter cold or 
allergy medication that contained pseudoephedrine. Consumers now need 
a prescription to buy more than 7.2 grams of medications that contain 
the substance during a single month.

Pill Mill Law, 2012: The legislature clamped down on "pill mills" by 
expanding the use of Kentucky's prescription tracking system to 
identify doctors who prescribed excessive amounts of schedule II and 
III narcotics. The bill also stipulated that pain clinics be owned by 
licensed physicians.

New synthetics law, 2013: The General Assembly returned to battling 
synthetic drugs in 2013 by adding more classes of banned products to 
state statute. The updates was described as the latest response to 
deadly changes in drug formulas.

Heroin law, 2015: Legislation sought to beat back a deadly epidemic 
of heroin abuse by toughening penalties for some dealers, increasing 
money for treatment, giving health departments an option to open 
needle exchanges and reworking laws to help prevent overdose deaths.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom