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Graphic by Colin Tooley
Graphic by Colin Tooley

According to the 2016 Overdose Fatality Report compiled by the Justice & Public Safety Cabinet of Kentucky, there has been a total of 5,822 overdose deaths since 2012. Kentucky has one of the highest overdose fatality rates on average per capita in the country, 29.9 per 100,000. In some economically depressed counties like Leslie County, where coal mining jobs have significantly decreased since 2012, the death rate attributed with overdose has remained at 68.63 per 100,000. In particular, Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky have experienced the highest number of causalities in Kentucky’s Drug War.

In February of 2017 in Lexington and Louisville, notable spikes of heroin overdoses were attributed to the drug, fentanyl. In Louisville that month, police and medical professionals responded to 118 overdose emergencies in a 72-hour period. In order to make heroin more potent, some drug dealers have started cutting heroin with fentanyl.

Graphic by Colin Tooley
Graphic by Colin Tooley

Albeit, some drug dealers have no idea fentanyl is in their drug supply because it is impossible to detect visually or smell. Fentanyl is a synthetic pain killer 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be 50 times stronger than street heroin. Fentanyl is so dangerous because of its potency that drug dogs, police officers and EMTs could overdose through inhalation or skin exposure.

Last year, 364 people died from drug overdoses in Jefferson County where Louisville is located, the largest city in Kentucky. According to the 2015 Overdose Fatality Report, the Justice & Public Safety Cabinet of Kentucky found that 34 % of fatal overdoses were associated with fentanyl while 28 % were linked to heroin alone. In the 2016 report, fentanyl associated fatalities increased to 47% and heroin only deaths increased to 34%.  

In Lexington on one eventful Friday evening in June of 2017, investigators reported five drug overdoses in less than an hour. The evening of June 9 began with the death of an unidentified man attributed to heroin. Forty minutes later, four men allegedly overdosed on Serenity, a designer drug. Next, according to police, a man went “berserk.” After breaking a store window with his head police subdued the intoxicated man and took him to a hospital for treatment, shortly thereafter, three other men near the vicinity of the incident overdosed.

In a five day period, at the end of July and beginning of August, there were seven drug overdoses in Rowan County, a less populated area in Kentucky. During an interview with a local news station, Rowan County Sheriff Matt Sparks attested one of the victims had overdosed twice in a 24-hour period. Sparks commented that drug overdoses were “a critical issue right now in our state.” During the five day period Spark’s Chief Deputy Joe Cline was exposed to heroin while arresting a woman after issuing a search warrant and had to be taken to a hospital.

A majority of hospitals in Kentucky do not routinely test for drugs in patients suspected of opioid overdoses, but use emergency life-saving tactics to resuscitate them. It’s not atypical for doctors to work on reviving multiple overdose patients at the same time.

In an interview with the Courier Journal, Dr. Robert Couch, a medical director in a hospital located in Louisville, relayed that in the past five years drug overdoses have increased from: “an occasional event to an everyday event.”

Police officers have also expressed concerns due to the increase of overdoses. An increase of overdoses increases the risk of new and more potent drugs coming unto the black market like carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that can be 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Despite years of facing this epidemic, there still haven’t been any well-established solutions to prevent or treat addiction in Kentucky.  

KENTUCKY’S CURRENT DRUG SOLUTION ISN’T ENOUGH

As of late 2015, Louisville Metro Police started carrying Narcan, a medicine that revives an individual experiencing respiratory issues caused by an opioid overdose that is administered as a mist through the nasal cavity. According to reporting from the Courier Journal, 688 doses of Narcan were given to 480 overdose victims in 2016.

The drug saved more than 95% of those individuals. Supplying Narcan to police officers and EMTs is important but it doesn’t address the issue of addiction. No matter how much police or medical training a person obtains it cannot stop human curiosity or the disease of addiction. Yet, rather than address the issues of addiction, Kentucky legislators continue to criminalize drug users.

The 2016 Overdose Fatality Report outlines steps taken to remedy the overdose epidemic in Kentucky:

In an effort to reverse the trend, the Commonwealth has implemented a number of program and policy initiatives, including but not limited to the statewide use of prescription drug monitoring programs, expanded availability of substance abuse treatment opportunities, and the enactment of laws (House Bill 1 from the 2012 Special Session and House Bill 217 from the 2013 Regular Session) specifically addressing the availability of prescription medications. Senate Bill 192 in the 2015 session increased penalties for traffickers and included a number of harm-reduction measures aimed at reducing overdose deaths. House Bill 333 in the 2017 session set a benchmark of a three-day limit for opioids prescribed for acute pain with certain exceptions. The law also increased penalties for trafficking in heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

There are 794,055 Kentuckians living below the poverty line as of 2016. When there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply especially if people need to quell a full blown opioid addiction that requires constant maintenance to avoid withdraws or hungry kids around a table with empty plates in front of them or both of those issues at the same time.

People will do whatever it takes to survive regardless if they’re going to be thrown in jail or not. Lawmakers are failing to address the issue of addiction and poverty by criminalizing people trafficking and dealing drugs.

LEGALIZE IT

In June of 2017, three plaintiffs filed a lawsuit with the Franklin County Circuit Court in Frankfort challenging Kentucky’s medical marijuana prohibition citing that cannabis is not as dangerous as opioids. One plaintiff, Amy Stalker, was prescribed marijuana when she lived in Colorado and Washington to treat her irritable bowel syndrome and bipolar disorder. Stalker is staying in Kentucky to take care of her dying mother. She has had difficulties taking care of her mother because of her lack of access to medicine.   

Over half of the United States allows for the medical use of marijuana as a substitute to addictive opioids. In 2014, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a measure that allowed the prescription of cannabidol or CBD, but that is nowhere near what people need to treat chronic pain or other ailments that are better treated with marijuana products higher in THC or other cannabinoids for that matter.

Another plaintiff of the lawsuit, Danny Belcher, has testified before to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes in Kentucky. Belcher is a Vietnam Vet who uses marijuana to treat his PTSD, a spinal fracture and herniated disc.

During Bevin’s run as Kentucky Governor, he supported legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. Bevin also believes that marijuana is a gateway drug. During a Facebook Live event Bevin stated:  “I personally am a proponent of medical cannabis, if passed by the legislature, if regulated and prescribed in the same manner as other prescription drugs.” Rand Paul, a Senator from Kentucky, has spoken in favor of legalizing marijuana plenty of times. In response to Jeb Bush admitting to smoking cannabis during high school during a GOP Presidential Primary debate in 2015:

There is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school, and yet the people going to jail for this are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t. I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual.

Mitch McConnell is a soulless turtle alien creature, and his opinion does not matter on the subject of marijuana. It’s obvious what he thinks. Imagine all of the 1936 Reefer Madness propaganda but wrapped in a seemingly wholesome Christian message and tied with a sinister yet neat campaign contribution bow. Look to Kentucky to exemplify what could happen if conservative lawmakers control politics for decades.

Conservatives can no longer hide behind the propaganda that marijuana is dangerous because the opioid epidemic has proven that wrong. Opioid prescription is a path to harder drugs. Enough is enough. If lawmakers in Kentucky legalized marijuana, new revenue could reinvigorate communities where coal plants have shut down like in Leslie County. The marijuana industry is projected to formulate more jobs than the manufacturing sector by 2020. Prohibition of marijuana is hindering Kentucky’s economic potential.  

Colorado generated $1.1 billion in less than a year through the sales of recreational and medical marijuana. Not only did legalizing marijuana boost Colorado’s economy but sales generated $150 million in sales tax. That does not include revenue from the stores that sell unique products necessary for growing marijuana or the supply chain that brings cannabis from the growers to the owners of dispensaries. Plus, there’s a demand already in place because marijuana is Kentucky’s most utilized ‘illicit’ drug.

Kentucky is not only in the top five states of drug overdose fatalities, but also for the eradication of illegally grown marijuana. According to the Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet’s 2016 annual report, the marijuana eradication team of Kentucky killed 561,432 cannabis plants.

Imagine all of the tax dollars that could have potentially been generated if marijuana was legal, last year. Furthermore, the tax dollars utilized for eradicating marijuana could have been used for funding community policing programs, better public schools in poorer areas, building homeless shelters, fixing the $700 million pension crisis in Kentucky or treatment centers for addicts that aren’t centered on a religion.  

There is medicine out there for people that isn’t as addictive as opioids. Marijuana has been used as a medicine for over 5,000 years. It’s ridiculous that it remains illegal. It’s time for Kentucky to legalize it.

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