The Ripon Forum

Volume 49, No. 3

September 2015

The New Epidemic

By on September 10, 2015

How one community is leading the fight against heroin


Grayson_Trey-304After three and half years in the Boston area, I returned home in 2014 to take the helm of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Northern Kentucky refers to the region of Kentucky across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio, with over 400,000 residents as well as Cincinnati’s airport. (Yes, when you fly to Cincinnati, you actually land in Kentucky.)

I spent the first several months on the job becoming reacquainted with my hometown. During those early conversations, one topic kept coming up over and over – our region’s heroin epidemic. The best way to tell how widespread this has become is to list a few statistics:

• Heroin overdose admissions to emergency rooms in Northern Kentucky tripled between 2011 and 2014.
• Kenton County Jailer Terry Carl estimated that 80% of those in his jail are locked up for heroin-related offenses.
• A recent survey found that 26% of respondents in our region said they knew someone who has experienced problems with heroin.
• In 2011, St. Elizabeth Hospital treated 28 babies born with neonatal opioid withdrawal. This year, that number is projected to be at least 134, four times as high.
• Northern Kentucky’s Hepatitis C acute infection rate is 24 times the national rate.

Heroin is incredibly addictive and currently very cheap and plentiful, thus posing a problem for any town in America. Our region is particularly vulnerable given our population size; proximity to Chicago and Detroit, which serve as import hubs for the drug; and the lowest per capita allocation of federal and state funds for treatment of substance use and mental health disorders among Kentucky regions.

We estimated that Kentucky’s price tag for heroin, alcohol and other drug abuse totaled more than $6 billion annually when considering crime, medical care, workplace accidents, and lost wages. This staggering figure doesn’t include lower productivity from employees worried about their addicted family members.

We estimated that Kentucky’s price tag for heroin, alcohol and other drug abuse totaled more than $6 billion annually when considering crime, medical care, workplace accidents, and lost wages.

This staggering toll – both financial and human – convinced the Chamber to become involved early on. Passing a comprehensive heroin plan became one of the Chamber’s top legislative priorities in 2014, and our top priority in 2015. We were very proud when Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Chamber in April 2015 that no other chamber in the nation had stepped forward as much as us. In fact, Director Botticelli announced last month that Kentucky will be among the select few states that will be sharing a $2.5 million federal grant for the Heroin Response Strategy – a program that helps Federal, state, and local authorities to coordinate drug enforcement operations, support prevention efforts and improve public health and safety.

We worked to bring together all of the diverse parties — representatives from government, law enforcement, treatment, advocacy and business communities — in an umbrella organization, the Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact Response Team, which issued a plan of action in November 2013. That plan is centered on four major strategies that are enveloped within a larger context of reducing the supply of drugs on the street and advocating for legislative enhancements that support the initiative: Treatment, Prevention, Support and Protection.

Partisan politics prevented passage of such a plan in the state legislature in 2014, but legislative leaders identified passage as a top priority and worked diligently to pass a comprehensive bill in 2015. The result was Senate Bill 192, which passed the Senate 34-4 and the House unanimously.

Among SB 192’s highlights:

• A Good Samaritan law providing immunity for those who report an overdose to authorities
• Increased penalties for trafficking in large amounts or any amount across state lines
• Increased availability of the rescue drug Naloxone to reverse overdoses
• Authorized local option needle exchanges to stop the spread of Hepatitis C and to encourage those exchanging needles to enter treatment
• Increased availability of Vivitrol to wean addicts off heroin
• Funding ($10 million in first year, $24 million thereafter) to improve substance-abuse programs, speed up prosecutions and hire more social workers

It is expected that legislators will work to identify additional funds in the 2016 session to expand treatment programs, such as providing more adolescent treatment beds, because no adolescent beds outside of the juvenile justice system were funded in SB 192. In addition, lawmakers will likely debate tweaking some of the reforms, including one of the more controversial provisions — the needle exchange.

The state’s first such exchange program, implemented in Jefferson County, does not require an actual exchange, which has concerned some lawmakers, many of whom were reluctant to embrace needle exchanges in the first place for fear of enabling addicts. As legislators learned about the increased numbers of Hepatitis C and HIV cases resulting from shared needles used by heroin addicts, and the cost of treating those diseases, however, almost all came around to support such exchanges.

Our community still has a tough battle in front of us. The disease of addiction, specifically heroin, is a tough opponent. The past few years have shown that when we come together, we can start to make a difference. But this battle is a long way from being over. In fact, in many ways, it has only just begun. We hope that other communities can benefit from our experience and get a jump start on this epidemic before it arrives, as it surely will.

Trey Grayson is the President and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce You can follow him on Twitter @KYTrey.

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