Kentucky overdose deaths increase by 16 percent

Kentucky overdose deaths increase by 16 percent
Posted at 10:20 AM, Jun 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-15 10:20:12-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Faced with increasing numbers of overdose drug deaths, Kentucky state lawmakers toughened penalties for drug traffickers and increased spending on addiction treatment programs last year.

The result so far: a 16 percent increase in overdose deaths in 2015.

The 2015 Overdose Fatality Report, released Tuesday, shows 1,248 people died of drug overdoses in Kentucky last year compared with 1,071 deaths in 2014. State officials said it was too early to pass judgment on the reforms passed in 2015, but Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said the numbers were disappointing.

"There is a measure of disappointment. I think that doubles my resolve in this instance," Tilley said. "I think the real question to ask ourselves is what would we be looking at had we not acted?"

Heroin, the addictive opioid that prompted the law changes in 2015, accounted for 28 percent of all overdose deaths. But state officials are more concerned with another opioid: fentanyl. The synthetic drug accounted for 420 overdose deaths in 2015, up from 121 deaths in 2014. Overall, Fentanyl accounted for 34 percent of all reported overdose deaths.

State officials say fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Because of that, Van Ingram, director of Kentucky's Office of Drug Control Policy, said drug traffickers have begun mixing fentanyl with heroin because it is cheaper to produce.

"You are putting your life in the hands of people who have cut this and are hoping it has been cut enough that it won't kill you," Ingram said. "It really scares me for what's next out there, because there are things that are more powerful than fentanyl that can be created."

Kentucky lawmakers anticipated the rise in fentanyl when they changed the drug laws in 2015. They made synthetic fentanyl a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it cannot be prescribed. And lawmakers increased penalties for trafficking in fentanyl. People caught trafficking 2 grams or more of fentanyl or heroin can be charged with a Class C felony and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Yet that was not enough to prevent the massive increase in fentanyl overdose cases in 2015. Whitney Westerfield, the Republican chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said the report demonstrates the extent of Kentucky's addiction crisis. He said the state will continue to chase drug traffickers and new drug combinations but said the state needs to spend more on treatment.

"If it's not heroin, it's fentanyl. And if it's not fentanyl, it's whatever comes next," he said.

Lawmakers are already spending more money on treatment programs. The 2015 law spent an additional $10 million for drug treatment programs. The two-year operating budget the legislature passed and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed includes an additional $32 million in spending on anti-drug efforts.