The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 1,600 Kentuckians died from a drug overdose between November 2016 and November 2017. That was a 14 percent increase over the previous year’s death toll.
Among the hardest hit areas of the commonwealth are portions of southwestern Jefferson County. In Shively, Beechmont, and surrounding neighborhoods, 57 people died from drug overdoses in 2017, according to a report by Insider Louisville.
That prompted two Democratic state lawmakers representing those areas to engage residents of those communities in the search for solutions to the drug crisis. Rep. McKenzie Cantrell of the 38th House district and Rep. Joni Jenkins of the 44th House district appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the work of their South Louisville Task Force on Opioids.
Task Force Open to All Ideas
The drug issue hits especially close to home for Rep. Jenkins. Five years ago, she lost her 23-year-old nephew to a heroin overdose. He had been in treatment for a year, and clean for several months when he died. Jenkins says too many people in her district share that experience.
“Over the years I’ve gotten so many calls from families saying we don’t know where to turn, we don’t know what to do,” says Jenkins. “The thing that we have seen with opioid addiction is there’s really no zip code that is untouched, and it goes right across all the demographics.”
After they saw the report that listed zip codes within their districts as having more accidental overdose deaths than any other part of Jefferson County, the two lawmakers decided to create a task force of professionals and community leaders to develop recommendations for addressing the crisis. The group held its first public meeting on June 21.
“Every part of Louisville is a little bit different,” says Rep. Cantrell. “So we wanted to bring everyone together in the room and be sure that people and families are able to make the connections to the services that already exist in our community.”
One goal, according to Jenkins, is to break down barriers between residents, service providers, criminal justice officials, and lawmakers so that information and ideas can flow more freely. She says that she and Cantrell heard from people who need help finding treatment options for family members and learning how to use insurance to pay for those services. Faith leaders spoke of wanting to help, but not knowing what their churches could do.
And some people shared actionable ideas. For example, a local mental health provider could make individuals in recovery available to serve as peer counselors to overdose victims treated at south Louisville’s Saints Mary and Elizabeth Hospital. Jenkins says she and Cantrell also want to encourage business owners to provide more job opportunities for people in recovery.
“They have questions and concerns,” says Jenkins. “I think if we can link those folks with some employers here in Louisville Metro who are doing that right now, [it] takes away some of those unknowns and makes it a little less scary or mysterious about what could happen.”
Cantrell says she was surprised to hear from residents who want to know what to do when they suspect drug activity coming from a nearby home.
“Everyone sort of knows the house on the street where the drugs are coming from,” Cantrell says. “How can we respect everyone’s Constitutional rights to the privacy of their own home but also take care of crime emanating from that home, and how can neighbors feel safe about reporting criminal activity in their own neighborhood?”
Turning Ideas into Legislative Solutions
The lawmakers hope these community discussions will lead to legislation that can be proposed by Louisville Metro Council members or in the Kentucky General Assembly. Jenkins says addressing the opioid crisis will save lives and save money. Drug crimes have helped drive the state’s prison population to about 24,000 people.
“I don’t think our citizens are worse than other states’ citizens, but we do have this bent on incarcerating way too many people,” Jenkins says.
“We incarcerate a lot of parents, too,” Cantrell adds. “The children of Kentucky really disproportionately have more caregivers incarcerated than in other states.”
State lawmakers have already discussed new sentencing guidelines and better treatment options as a way of reducing prison populations. They also implemented felony expungement for certain low-level offenders who have completed their sentences and remained crime-free for five years.
Frankfort lawmakers have been reluctant to embrace other ideas for reducing addiction. Legislators debated the merits of needle exchange programs for two years before enacting a law in 2015 that lets local communities decide whether to allow addicts to trade used drug syringes for clean ones. Jenkins and Cantrell say the programs help prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV, and they provide opportunities for counselors to foster relationships with drug users and encourage them into treatment.
Some states are considering an idea that takes needle exchanges a step further. They propose to create “safe injection sites” where people can go to inject heroin or opioids in the presence of a medical professional who could help prevent an overdose.
“Some people would look at that as enabling,” Jenkins says. “But it’s another point of intervention to build a relationship.”
Medical marijuana is another treatment option that lawmakers could consider, says Cantrell. Some researchers believe that marijuana could be a viable alternative to opioid painkillers and could help reduce overdose deaths. But such treatments would necessitate laws to remove criminal punishments for marijuana use.
Considering the state’s skyrocketing prison costs and jail populations, Cantrell says that its important to explore these and other alternatives for helping criminal offenders with an addiction.
“The cost of treatment is less than the cost of incarceration, so if we’re able to give people that chance, then we should do so,” says Cantrell.
With every state House member and half of the state Senate up for re-election this year, Jenkins says the composition of the legislature could look very different when it convenes in January. She says she hopes those fresh faces will bring a new openness to considering innovative ideas for addressing the state’s drug addiction crisis.