Drug Use And Abuse: Lawmakers tackle heroin abuse, medical marijuana, e-cigarettes

Drug Use And Abuse: Lawmakers tackle heroin abuse, medical marijuana, e-cigarettes

Drug Use And Abuse: Lawmakers tackle heroin abuse, medical marijuana, e-cigarettes
May 28, 2014

Heroin and marijuana are two of the top healthcare issues state lawmakers are confronting with just a few weeks left in the session, although how to deal with one of the drugs is more controversial than the other. 

For several weeks Senate Republicans have been holding hearings around the state on how best to combat heroin use, which has skyrocketed in recent years. The Senate Democrats have already submitted their own legislative package addressing heroin abuse, and lawmakers say they are optimistic that they will be able to come to an agreement this year. 

“Overall, this is a nonpartisan issue,” said state Sen. Phil Boyle, who chairs the Senate Heroin and Opioid Addiction Task Force. “Both the Assembly and the Senate, we want to protect our children and literally save lives with this legislation, and I think that we’re going to have no problem passing the vast majority of this legislation. There might be some sticking points, but the vast majority shouldn’t have any problem.” 

Among the measures the Senate is likely to introduce are providing additional insurance coverage to help heroin addicts get treatment, creating more drug detoxification programs, expanding effective prevention programs and increasing criminal penalties on drug dealers. 

“Each forum we’ve had, we’ve got some of the same information and then some new bits of information from each location,” Boyle said. “I’m expecting a very strong legislative package to combat the heroin epidemic, and we’re going to issue a report along with legislation by the end of the month—and then quickly, I would imagine, pass a lot of legislation.” 

A more controversial bill that could yet secure enough support to pass this year would legalize medical marijuana. The measure, spearheaded by state Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, has already won support from some Republicans and narrowly made it out of the Senate Health Committee recently. 

“I think the single most important issue is medical marijuana, which is looking very promising,” Gottfried said. “I am very hopeful that we will have the opportunity to reach an agreement with the Senate Republican leadership and get it passed in both houses. It’s been an awfully long time getting to this point.” 

Gottfried, the longtime chair of the Assembly Health Committee, listed a number of other health-oriented bills he would like to move on this year. He has introduced several amendments to the Family Health Care Decisions Act, including one that would clarify who can make healthcare decisions for incapacitated patients who have not filled out healthcare proxy forms. Several other bills would deal with assisted living facilities, from providing more training to staff members to requiring a registered nurse to be on staff, depending on the needs of the residents. 

The use of electronic cigarettes is a hot-button issue that has generated scrutiny in both houses, although it is a fairly recent topic to be discussed in the Legislature and may not result in changes in the law this session, Gottfried said. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal has a bill to outlaw using electronic cigarettes in any place smoking tobacco is not allowed. A second bill would outlaw the sale of e-cigarette fluid refills to be sold to minors. 

“There are apparently versions of cigarettes that can be refilled with the liquid nicotine, which turns out to be a very dangerous fluid, so there are concerns about this being available to minors,” Gottfried said. “It’s already illegal to sell e-cigarettes to minors, and so the proposal would extend that concept to the refills that are sold.” 

State Sen. David Carlucci, who chairs the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee, said that one of his top bills remaining this session is a “front-door reform” bill. The bill would require the state to develop a plan to provide services more quickly to people diagnosed with mental health disorders. 

“This is the process in which a person who is in need of services, that they begin the process,” Carlucci said. “And there’s been a large outcry from people really voicing major issues and backlogs. So the problem is now someone is reaching out to their local social services in any respective county, and they’re really experiencing a bureaucratic nightmare where they might perfectly well have a diagnosis but they’re not able to get the services for sometimes a period of months, if not longer.” 

Another bill Carlucci is pushing would require more mental health training for correctional officers. The senator cited examples at Rikers Island and elsewhere in which prisoners had died, in part due to the behavior of guards overseeing them. 

“Right now correctional officers are trained with mental health training, but only if they are in a specific unit that is dealing with inmates with a mental health diagnosis,” Carlucci said. “You talk to any correctional officer, and they’ll tell you they need training; they need more training.” 

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.