FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The first time Michelle Walters used heroin her skin turned yellow, her stomach wrenched in pain and she threw up.
She had hepatitis C, most likely from a dirty needle a friend used to shoot her up. She recovered after an expensive hospital stay she could not pay for, and she would soon be back. By her count, she has been hospitalized at least eight times to fight off various infections from the dirty needles she uses to get high.
But not lately. In the past year, Walters has had a steady supply of clean needles from the Cincinnati Exchange Product, an advocacy group that operates just across the river from where she lives in northern Kentucky. She says she has not been to the hospital since.
Advocates point to Walters’ story as proof that in a state that has the highest rate of hepatitis C cases in the country, any legislation tackling Kentucky’s heroin problem must allow local needle exchanges where addicts can swap dirty needles for clean ones.
But opponents of needle exchanges can make their own example out of Walters: She is still addicted to heroin, and she is not stopping soon.
“I’m going to do what I have to do for myself, regardless of what laws they pass,” she said. “I want to be off of it … but until something changes, I have to do what I have to do.”
The needle exchange divides House and Senate lawmakers as they enter the final week of the legislative session. Heroin overdose deaths have soared 945 percent in just two years, prompting the Senate to go after the heroin supply by passing a bill that strengthens penalties for dealers regardless of how much heroin they have when they are arrested.
Hepatitis C cases related to opioid drug use have risen by nearly 1,600 percent from 2000 to 2012, according to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center. And treatment costs tens of thousands of dollars per person, including a new drug introduced last year that can cure the disease but cost $84,000 per person for a 12-week course. It is quickly becoming a budget issue for the state’s Medicaid program, which covers 25 percent of the state’s population. That’s why the House passed a bill that would give local health boards the option to set up needle exchanges to prevent the spread of disease and often open the door to treatment for addicts who would not seek it otherwise.
In the year that the Cincinnati Exchange Product has been operating, director Libby Harrison said she has only come across one person who was not already injecting the drug — and Harrison was able to talk her out of it.
“It’s easier to quit using drugs when you have a life to look forward to, when you don’t have a disease that could kill you,” she said.
But the issue has been a nonstarter with some Senate Republican leaders.
“I think the needle exchange is something that looks as if government is condoning the use of heroin by providing the instrumentalities to use that heroin,” said Republican Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester.
Instead, the Senate version of the bill spends more money on drug treatment programs in jails and prisons, arguing addicts would be more receptive to treatment once they have been arrested. And it would strengthen penalties for all heroin dealers. Right now, the state hands out lesser sentences for people caught with less than 2 grams of heroin.
“The dealers know these laws. They don’t keep 2 grams or more on their person,” Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders said. “They sell them a couple tenths of a gram at a time, then go back to wherever their stash is.”
But Democratic state Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville said the Senate version would undo sweeping sentencing reform laws the state enacted in 2011 that have reduced the prison population by giving alternative sentences to nonviolent offenders. State Rep. Joni Jenkins, whose nephew died in 2013 from a heroin overdose, agreed.
“I know people want to punish people and I will tell you the young man that first sold heroin to my nephew, I hated him. I wanted him to pay,” she said. “He paid in December because he died of an overdose. He was completely disenfranchised from his family, there was no notice in the paper, there was no funeral for people to grieve for him, and I thought I would feel good that he finally got this punishment, and I just felt sad.”