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Kentucky Legislature, Regulators on Policy Approaches to Opioid Epidemic

by Cedric Dent

September 6, 2022
A female pharmacist reaches for medication from a shelf. Sen. Ralph Alvarado and others demonstrate the Kentucky Legislature won't beat the state's opioid epidemic without help from everybody.

Kentucky leadership is getting increasingly vocal and active when it comes to the opioid epidemic. Kentucky legislature Senator Ralph Alvarado (R-District 28) and Kentucky Drug Control Policy Office Executive Director Van Ingram have both addressed the crisis this month. Their commentaries, however, evince the complexities involved in fighting rampant substance abuse.

Funds Allocated for Overdose Problem

Kentucky ranks fifth nationwide for opioid pain reliever prescriptions. The state also ranks eighth in drug overdose deaths per capita and thirteenth in drug arrests per capita. This data comes from a Wallet Hub study that looked at drug use problems by state. Lots of various resources are being thrown at the problem, but dealing with the opioid epidemic is too great a challenge for any one solution to serve as a catchall. Last year’s Kentucky Drug Overdose report shows 2,250 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses. That paralleled the nation’s historic peak of 107,000 Americans who died from drug overdoses.

The state of Kentucky also just established a new commission tasked with aptly allocating new funds to address these problems. The new funds total $240 million from the settlement of a massive, federal lawsuit against major opioid distributors on behalf of the country at large. Just last month, Teva — an Israeli drug manufacturer and distributor — consented to contributing $4.3 billion to settle lawsuits with state and local governments. However, the nature of litigation payout is such that those dollars will trickle into the state over the course of a decade. That means there’s no lump sum that can be allocated right now.

If you or someone you know are among those going back and forth with opioids, visit Landmark Recovery of Louisville or call 502.309.2675.

Kentucky Legislature Policy Solutions for Curbing Opioid Epidemic’s Effects

“This is a bucket with 50 holes in it, and sometimes we look for someone else to fix the problem,” said Sen. Alvarado, “and government can fix some of those holes, and we’re trying to continue to do that. But that bucket’s still not going to hold water.” 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report two thirds of drug-related deaths in Kentucky are linked to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Alvarado’s go-to policy solutions deal with the criminalization thereof. He believes that increasing the criminal penalties can make a difference. Since he’s been office (the last eight years), one focus has been on fielding bills that increase felony charges against traffickers that import the drugs into Kentucky. He also cites securing pertinent education and treatment for those who are incarcerated as a way to rehabilitate them before reentry into society.

Sen. Alvarado said legislators are “trying to realize that we’re not going to incarcerate our way out of this for people that are in the throes of addiction — that we have to treat our way out of this.”

All Hands on Deck: Not Just Kentucky LegislatureA pharmacist's hands are seen bottling pills for a prescription to be picked up at the pharmacy. The Kentucky Legislature won't beat the opioid epidemic without widespread assistance according to Sen. Ralph Alvarado and others.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] seized a shipment just this month with pills containing enough fentanyl to kill 50,200 people. On Aug. 4, CBP officers in Louisville confiscated a shipment coming from India yet en route to Ontario. The pills represented a street value of at least $15,000.

“This narcotic is not only dangerous to the user, but also very dangerous to our officers,” said LaFonda Sutton-Burke, CBP field operations director at the Chicago Field Office.

Importance of Public-Private Sector Cooperation

Van Ingram, executive director at the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy, which focuses on coordinating efforts pertaining to enforcement, treatment, prevention and education regarding substance abuse. He reminds Kentuckians drug overdose is a “completely preventable disease” that claimed six lives per day last year. Almost three fourths of those people had fentanyl in their bloodstreams. According to Ingram, it’s necessary to pool all available resources to combat the problem.

Alvarado added that regulatory solutions making it easier on addiction treatment providers are very necessary now. That would entail increasing funding for reducing the administrative burden for treatment providers. Those who graduate from the programs at these addiction treatment centers — whether they enter outpatient programs or continue recovery solo — also need to get optimal employment opportunities. They need stability in order to adequately pursue recovery. Alvarado acknowledged not only that but the inherent need to destigmatize substance use disorder and addiction treatment.

“A lot of different agencies touch on this epidemic. We work closely with our Department of Public Health. We work closely with our Department of Behavioral Health. We work with education and workforce. All of this ties together.”

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