Stricter Penalties a Sticking Point for Heroin Legislation

Stricter Penalties a Sticking Point for Heroin Legislation

Stricter Penalties a Sticking Point for Heroin Legislation
June 11, 2014

Combating opioid and heroin abuse might be the one major legislative deal that gets done before the session ends June 19, but some key differences remain between the state Senate and Assembly.

Several measures in the Senate’s legislative package on heroin abuse may draw opposition from the Assembly because they would add or strengthen penalties for opioid abuse.

“The answer is not increasing penalties,” Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, who chairs the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee, told City & State. “That’s not what we need now. We need more prevention services, we need better education … and I look forward to working with the Senate on those bills that will provide those services.”

Of the 23 bills passed by the Senate on Monday, nine would enforce harsher penalties for opioid users and dealers. Lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly have co-sponsored four bills that would establish higher felonies for crimes such as the sale of opioids in close proximity to a treatment facility and the theft of a blank prescription form.

The other five bills lack Assembly sponsors or have no similar bills in the Assembly. One of these Senate bills would establish a class A felony for the transportation or sale of illegal opioid substances that result in a person’s death. Another Senate bill would eliminate the option of boot camps for young adults charged with the criminal possession of a controlled substance in the second degree.

The next stop for the Senate’s heroin legislative package is the Assembly, which has only until the end of next week to vote on it. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Wednesday said passing legislation to fight heroin abuse is one of the Assembly’s priorities as the session winds down.

Cymbrowitz on Monday at the Capitol held one of a series of Assembly roundtable discussions to explore the best solutions to fight opioid abuse. Parents of overdose victims, advocates and legislators repeatedly expressed a need for a new detoxification and treatment system. The Senate has passed a bill that would create such a system, but the Assembly has not introduced a companion bill.  

Advocates also stressed a need to improve the review process for determining insurance coverage for substance abuse treatment, specifically for opioid abuse. Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly have introduced a bill to require health insurance policies to cover outpatient and inpatient treatment programs, and it has already passed in the Senate.

The two houses do have some common ground. Members of the Assembly and Senate have co-sponsored bills that create addiction relapse programs; establish drug take-back events; allow naloxone, a drug to reverse opioid overdose, in schools; and create new standards that would require medical professionals to continue education on pain management and addition.

Lawmakers in both houses have also introduced similar bills that would establish a heroin awareness campaign.

“We’ve been passing bills dealing with the opiate and heroin addiction for the last two years and we’re extremely pleased that the Senate finally joined us in putting forward a package,” Cymbrowitz said on Monday.

On Wednesday, he added: “There won’t be a package [released by the state Assembly]. We didn’t find it necessary to put a package together since we’ve already been doing this for a while.”

Cymbrowitz said that the Assembly would continue to introduce additional bills targeting heroin abuse before June 19.

State Senate Majority Coalition Co-Leaders Dean Skelos and Jeffrey Klein in March created a joint task force on heroin and opioid addiction. The bi-partisan task force held 18 public forums across the state and released a report last month that resulted in the legislative package passed this week.

State. Sen. Phil Boyle, who chaired the Senate task force, defended the stricter penalties, saying they were needed to effectively stop opioid abuse.

“I hope the Assembly looks at the fact that most of these bills passed unanimously or near unanimously. If they want to have some concerns with the criminal justice aspects of it we can have those debates,” Boyle said. “But certainly they should be passing the bills which passed with, every bill I would say, passed with strong bipartisan support.”

Boyle added that the important thing is to start saving lives, given the state’s “heroin epidemic.”

“There is no time for gamesmanship here,” he said. “There’s only two weeks left in the session and we want to get as many as these bills passed as possible. I’m cautiously optimistic that will be the case.”

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Ashley Hupfl