At opioid summit, Chamber urges employers to update policies, continues lobbying to reduce penalties for simple possession

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Adkisson spoke at the Chamber’s opioid summit.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is calling on the state’s business community to update its drug and alcohol policies to bring more help to their employees who suffer from addictions, and keep working to get state legislators to downgrade criminal penalties for simple drug possession.

At an “opioid summit” in Lexington June 24, the business lobby also announced that its Kentucky Chamber Workforce Centerhas won about $700,000 to identify how businesses can prevent opioid addiction in the workplace and help employees recover, Rebekah Alveyreports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy put up $350,000 for the program, and private donors matched it.

The center’s director, Beth Davisson, said the “Opioid Response Program for Business” will work with employers to provide free audits of human-resource policies and procedures related to addiction and recovery, with a long-term goal of connecting them with recovery programs. The grant will also fund a 15-month study of how the epidemic is affecting the workforce.

Kentucky Health Secretary Adam Meier told the group that it’s important to be able to show companies that “There’s a business case to be made to be a part of this solution.”

Mark LaPalme, CEO and founder of the Isaiah House, an addiction-treatment center in Willisburg, told the group that placing recovering addicts in a strong community, such as a college or job, causes a 90 to 95 percent sober success rate beyond a year, Alvey reports.

Alvey writes that in the past, places of employment have been “toxic environments for people in recovery,” but La Palme says, “Now we’re not looking to fire people, now we’re not looking to discipline people necessarily for disease and addiction. We’re actually partnering to try and help them and help them get better.”

The chamber also announced it would keep asking the Kentucky General Assembly to downgrade some drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, Alex Acquisto reports for the Herald-Leader in a separate story.

“It’s not just a budgetary issue,” Ashli Watts, the chamber’s senior vice president of public affairs, told Acquisto. “We have a workforce issue. We know we’re spending too much on corrections and we’re not seeing the [intended] outcomes. Our communities are not getting safer.”

“Treating it like an addiction and not necessarily a crime” is how the state should proceed, she said. “This is a population that needs second chances.”

Map from Chamber of Commerce opioids report

In 2017, nearly 1,600 people in Kentucky died from an opioid-involved overdose. Since 2012, that rate has increased by 117% for heroin and by 564% for synthetic opioids, like fentanyl.

In Kentucky, anyone possessing either of these substances or other scheduled drugs is charged with a Class D felony, which can result in a one- to five-year prison sentence, even for a first offense. Not every Class D conviction results in a prison sentence; some are given the option of “rehabilitative diversion programs” to treat their substance use disorder in lieu of prison time, Acquisto notes.

Kentucky lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to minimize drug-possession sentence through what is sometimes called a “peddler distinction” to exempt addicts. Last year, a chamber-backed bill to downgrade non-violent felony charges, including reducing drug-related Class D felonies to Class A misdemeanors, died in committee.

2017 state report commissioned by Gov. Matt Bevin to address the state’s rising prison and jail population and recidivism rate found that between 2012 and 2016, there was a 38% growth in Class D felony admissions and a doubling of drug-possession admissions, Acquisto notes. At the end of 2016, the number of Class D inmates grew to 10,000, at an annual cost of roughly $18,400 each.

“What’s driving our prison population, to a great extent, is technical violations related to substance use disorder,” such as a positive drug screen or missing a meeting with a parole officer, ODCP Executive Director Van Ingram told Acquisto. “We’re trying to increase the odds of that success.”

The chamber “is urging the state to adopt comprehensive policies that prioritizes rehabilitative options over penalties, particularly for first- or second-time offenders,” Acquisto writes.

In addition to reclassifying drug-possession charges, the chamber wants more state support for substance-abuse treatment, more efforts to promote hiring people who are in recovery, and adding more harm-reduction programs such as syringe exchanges. The state has about 60 such programs, which are subject to local-government approval, which is often an obstacle.

The chamber represents 3,800 member businesses that employ over half of the state’s workforce, according to its website. The chamber’s Jacqueline Pitts detailed each topics on the lobby’s news site, The Bottom Line.

Pitts wrote about personal stories of addiction, including that of former University of Kentucky basketball star Rex Chapman, who played 12 years in the NBA. He told the crowd that he became addicted to Oxycodone after an emergency surgery during his final season, and that he was “in love” with the drug after just two days of taking it. He said it took him several stints in treatment to get sober, but has been so for five years now.

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