Kentucky State Senator John Schikel joined the debate over the local heroin problem last week.  In a guest editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Schikel blamed the increase in heroin deaths on reduced penalties passed two years by the Kentucky Legislature.  That Kentucky law made probation as the presumptive penalty for heroin possession and reduced the potential jail sentence for dealers.  In Schikel’s opinion, the law was the equivalent of a sign welcoming heroin dealers to Kentucky. (See Schikel’s column)

I heard Schikel being interviewed on the radio shortly after his guest editorial was published.  He seemed sincere and his viewpoint is one that resonates with a lot of people who are frustrated by the growing and seemingly intractable heroin problem.  Let’s look at some of the points Senator Schikel raised.

  • There was no heroin problem in Northern Kentucky prior to the law change easing penalties on dealers.  Sorry, but the heroin problem has emerged not only in Kentucky but across the country over the past few years.  The causes are complex but the impact of the Kentucky law change is likely minimal.  The major factor is significant numbers of people lost their access to pain medication and moved to heroin as a cheap substitute.  The same pattern was prevalent in southeast Ohio after the state crackdown on pill mills. The combination of a large group of these individuals and a flood of cheap and pure Mexican heroin has been disastrous.
  • We have to “cut the head off the snake” — meaning increase penalties for drug dealing.  The history of efforts to impose draconian sentences on dealers is dismal.  The serious traffickers, both internationally and locally, distance themselves from the actual drug transaction.  Our prisons are full of low-level dealers incarcerated under these laws targeting major dealers.  Even at the street level, the individuals actually handling the drugs are supervised and monitored by the real dealers who never participate in the actual deals.  The unfortunate fact is whenever a street level dealer is busted, there is a line of people ready to take his place.  The same phenomena is seen at the higher levels as well.  Once a week we’ll see a news story about the bust of the latest drug kingpin.  These busts make good publicity but have little impact on the illegal business as the next kingpin in waiting steps up to take over.
  • It is a myth to say it is too expensive to lock people up as the state corrections budget is only 5% of the total state spending. Senator Schikel has been careful to choose his statistic.  At a time when the state crime rate was dropping, the actual dollars spent on prisons increased by 54% from 2000 to 2009 and 338% since 1990.  Actual dollars spent amounted to $513 million in 2009.  Meanwhile, recidivism rates in Kentucky have increased.  Funds spent on criminal justice and prison costs for non-violent drug offenders are a theft from the serious other priorities facing the state.

Here is a brief history lesson for Senator Schikel. In the midst of alcohol prohibition, Senator Wesley Jones proposed and had passed a “tough” law on those people who were using and trafficking alcohol. The law called for a $10,000 fine and 5 years in jail for first time violators. As a result of Jones’ law, the jails were immediately flooded with minor offenders, outraging the population and forcing Jones out of office. Today, that disastrous “5 and 10” law looks eerily similar to Senator Schikel’s “zero tolerance” proposal.

I understand Senator  Schikel’s frustration and the  impulse to lock em up.  We’ve been doing that for almost 50 years.  Time for a new direction.