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Could Louisville Do More To Address Heroin Abuse?

A former Metro Council member is questioning whether Louisville's efforts are adequately addressing an increase in heroin use in recent years.

To that end, current council members say they're working on one option: increased funding for heroin treatment in Louisville.

Former Metro Councilman Steve Magre said he supports the syringe exchange program implemented last year. But he said it's not enough.

"I think we have a heroin epidemic in our community, and I really don't see the council and the mayor dealing with it in that light," Magre said in an interview with WFPL News.

The Louisville syringe exchange program provides clean needles to people who inject drugs intravenously, and it serves to refer heroin users to treatment programs. The council approvedthe exchange program in April 2015, soon after the state legislature approved a law to allow for such programs.

Magre, a former president of the old Louisville Board of Aldermen, served on the council for most of last year following the death of Councilman Jim King. A Democrat, Magre wasn't nominated to run in a special election in November and chose to not run against his successor, Pat Mulvihill.

Although he didn't offer specific ideas for programs, Magre said Louisville needs to develop a wider-ranging, community-oriented approach to addressing the heroin issue.

Several current Metro Council members say the city needs to continue addressing the heroin issue. But they say they aren't sure what more local government can do.

"There's no easy solution," said Councilwoman  Angela Leet, a Republican from District 7.

Councilman Stuart Benson, a Republican from District 20, said the effort to establish government programming to address issues sometimes leads to disappointing results.

"Those people have problems, and they need help," he said. "But sometimes you can't help a person until they want help."

Councilwoman Jessica Green, a Democrat from District 1, said working to offer more treatment options for residents dealing with addiction is a step in the right direction.

But Green, an attorney, said addressing the heroin issue requires more than just city programs. She said the criminal justice approach to addressing drug abuse needs to be reevaluated.

"I do not believe that we should just treat folks like they are criminals when, obviously, drug addiction is a disease," she said.

Lt. J.T. Duncan, of the Louisville Metro Police's narcotics unit, said officers could offer more assistance to residents struggling with addiction if there were "more places to drop them off as opposed to jail."

"There's limited jail space, and we really want to keep that space for criminals as opposed to people who are hooked on drugs," he said. 

Duncan said while heroin use is a crime, getting people suffering from addiction into treatment should be the priority.

"Those places are out there, but they also have limited space," he said.

Councilwoman Marilyn Parker, a Republican from District 18, said the council is working to establish bipartisan agreement in upcoming budget discussions to provide "generous" funding for The Healing Place, a Louisville-based agency that provides drug and alcohol recovery services.

"We need treatment options," Parker said. "It is a big problem and is something we're going to have to stay on top of."

Metro Council President David Yates, a Democrat from District 25, said the council is taking every step it can to address the heroin crisis. He praised the city's work thus far in keeping the outbreak of heroin addiction at the level it is now.

"We've done much better than other cities," he said.

Yates also said a major council initiative in the coming months will be ensuring there are adequate treatment facilities that can meet the needs of residents.

He said the council will look to help The Healing Place fund an expansion project of the men's treatment facility, though he didn't offer any details on how much money the council will look to funnel to the project.

"We'll be working together, united with the mayor, to address this issue," he said.

A spokeswoman for the The Healing Place said in an email that facility leadership has been working diligently to get support from the Metro Council.

To date, about $6 million has been raised for the $24 million expansion project. The expansion aims to double the number of detox units and long-term recovery units available for men struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

Currently, the facility turns away about 300 men each month due to a lack of space.

In 2014, 204 people in Louisville died from overdoses of heroin or other drugs, according to the Kentucky Office for Drug Control Policy. That was a slight increase from 192 the two previous years.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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