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McConnell Calls Northern Kentucky Ground Zero for Heroin Abuse

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) testified before the Senate Drug Caucus on Wednesday afternoon where he referred to Northern Kentucky as ground zero for heroin abuse in the Commonwealth.

The Drug Caucus hosted the hearing that featured speakers from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Phoenix House, a non-profit substance abuse treatment facility.

The hearing explored prescription drug abuse and the role it plays in the increased use of heroin in the United States, as well as how the federal government can help reduce opioid abuse.

Below are Senator McConnell's remarks in full:

“Chairwoman Feinstein, Co-Chairman Grassley, members of the Drug Caucus, and other distinguished guests, thank you for having me here today to testify on the scourge of heroin abuse that is devastating too many families and communities across America, and in particular, in my home state of Kentucky. And thank you for your willingness to focus on this growing threat to both Kentucky families and communities across our nation.

“I’d like to share with you the story of a wonderful, vibrant community that I have the pleasure of representing in the U.S. Senate. It could be many places in America, but it happens to be in northern Kentucky.

“The northern Kentucky area of suburban Cincinnati is a center of culture, arts, and American history. It is the home to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and the gateway to the Bluegrass State from the north.

“Residents of Kenton, Boone, and Campbell counties, the area commonly referred to as northern Kentucky, live in a time of great opportunity. They have the benefit of living in a major metropolitan area of more than two million, with all the livability and charm of a small town.

“They can take advantage of cultural amenities like the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Newport on the Levee, the Newport Aquarium, and Kentucky Speedway, to name a few. Or they can take in a Cincinnati Reds Major League baseball game, a Cincinnati Bengals NFL game, or the Cincinnati Art Museum. And over 25,000 acres of parkland give free rein to relaxation and recreation on a temperate day.

“Northern Kentucky offers all this—and yet, this proud community is also saddled with the terrible distinction of being the very epicenter of heroin addiction in Kentucky and in the nation.

“Many believe that the problem started because of prescription pain pill abuse. Kentucky has the third-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country. On the street, these pain pills are expensive—they can cost between $60 and $100, compared to a bag of heroin at just $10 a bag.

“So, given the progress we have made in Kentucky in fighting the illegal sale and use of prescription narcotics, it is no surprise that we have seen an uptick in heroin usage, once we understand the economics of it.

“A few months ago, I discussed the relationship between prescription painkiller abuse and the growing heroin threat with leaders of the federal agencies responsible for curbing these threats, and I will continue to work with them to address this epidemic.

“I would like to highlight for the Drug Caucus some hard but true facts about the extent of the heroin abuse problem in northern Kentucky. I’d like to credit the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce for this data.

“The fact that these numbers come from the chamber of commerce and not a law-enforcement or public health agency demonstrates how pervasive the threat to the community is.

“These are the facts: In 2012, there were 61 heroin overdose deaths in the three counties referred to as northern Kentucky.

“In fact, the number of overdose cases at the region’s largest hospital increased by more than 75 percent in 2012, while the number of heroin overdose cases by just August of 2013 had already doubled the number in all of 2012.

“Rates of acute Hepatitis C infections in northern Kentucky are double the statewide rate and 24 times the national rate—I repeat, 24 times the national rate. Public health officials attribute the region’s high infection rate to the region’s high level of heroin use.

“What’s more, the Northern Kentucky Health Department has reported that for every one death, there is one new case of Hepatitis C that incurs a lifetime cost of $64,500.

“The smallest among us are not spared from this scourge. Sadly, newborn babies are born with drug withdrawal syndrome. Each case is heartbreaking, and is not only costly in human terms but fiscally, incurring an average hospitalization cost of $14,257.

“Law enforcement is on the front lines of this battle to protect Kentucky families. According to the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force, the number of court cases for heroin possession and trafficking has increased by 500 percent from 2008 to 2012 in Boone, Kenton, and Campbell counties, and is expected to double again in 2013.

“To put this in perspective, the three counties of the northern Kentucky area contained 60 percent of the state’s heroin prosecutions in 2011—even though they are home to less than 10 percent of the state’s population.

“Let me add here that it’s fitting you are holding this hearing during National Police Week, when thousands of police officers from across the country visit the Nation’s capital. We owe these officers our profound thanks and gratitude for risking their lives to combat this drug problem, and the many ancillary violent and property crimes driven by the growing trend.

“Clearly, the troubling facts I’ve just related show northern Kentucky has a serious heroin abuse problem. It is a major problem not for a few but for the entire region. And while northern Kentucky may be ground zero in my state, the problem of heroin abuse is spreading like a cancer across the Bluegrass State, where we are losing close to 100 fellow Kentuckians a month to drug-related deaths. This is more lives lost than to fatal car crashes.

“This March, I held a 90-minute listening session in Florence, Kentucky, in Boone County, to hear from those closest to the problem how federal resources could best be devoted to fixing it.

“As I said in Boone County, there are great heroes in this tragic story, such as the medical professionals who save lives, the business leaders who raise money for prevention and awareness efforts, the prosecutors and dedicated investigators who take drugs off the streets, and the recovered addicts themselves who find the courage to live despite their addiction.

“I heard from informed Kentuckians in the medical, public-health, and law-enforcement fields and the business community. I heard from one very brave young man, Patrick Kenyon, who had been ensnared by heroin and saw his friends use it and overdose. It took repeated attempts for him to break his addiction, but he said proudly in the listening session that he was four years and 10 months clean.

“I can’t stress enough how helpful it was to hear about this issue from so many thoughtful perspectives. That’s why I am very pleased you are holding this hearing today.

“Let me report briefly three takeaways from the listening session held in Florence: First, as noted, it is clear that the increase in heroin addiction is tied to our fight against the prescription drug abuse epidemic, which is largely driven by the abuse of prescription pain killers.

“Second, while Kentucky is making progress with greater education, more aggressive prosecutions, and enhanced regulatory authorities at the state level, we need a combination of both treatment and incarceration to be a part of the solution.

“Lastly, the heroin trade is no respecter of borders, which is why multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency law-enforcement efforts, such as the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, are so crucial. In this era of finite federal resources, we must use these interagency partnerships to the best extent to maximize our return from the federal dollars we spent to combat this epidemic.

“My friend Frank Rapier, the executive director of Appalachia HIDTA, never fails to remind his law-enforcement partners that ‘There’s no limit to what we can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.’ That very same credo must also guide our efforts at the federal level.

“In closing, Madame Chairwoman, let me return to the picture I painted of a northern Kentucky ripe with promise and yet beset by heroin abuse. Thankfully, the ending to this story has yet to be written. That’s why I’m here today, to share with you the gravity of the heroin threat to my constituents, and to pledge to work with all stakeholders to save lives in Kentucky from this terrible growing threat.

“With the efficient leveraging of federal resources and authorities, using best practices learned from both the law-enforcement and corrections agencies as well as the medical and public health communities, we can and will eliminate the shadow of this terrible heroin epidemic from healthy and robust communities like northern Kentucky and across America.”