Panel Passes Kentucky House Speaker's Pill Mill Bill

Feb 29, 2012

FRANKFORT, Ky.  The House Judiciary Committee approved Wednesday proposals to battle two separate drug abuse problems.

One bill, by Committee Chairman John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat, would ban synthetic drugs that are being sold over the counter and online as "bath salts" and "incense." The substances have reportedly caused hallucinations, psychosis and death.

The other bill, by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, would tackle the prescription drug abuse problem caused by "pill mills" that prescribe powerful and addictive pain medicines like Oxycontin and Hydrocodone.

The synthetic drugs measure passed the committee unanimously on Wednesday. The pain clinics bill passed during the same meeting with every member present voting in favor except Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat, who did not vote.

At a press conference at the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, synthetic drugs were described as a newest dangerous drug scourge.

On Wednesday, Tilley spoke of several cases involving synthetic drugs. One story involved a mother in Marshall County who was accused of leaving her 2-year-old child on a highway because she thought the toddler was demon-possessed. He said a teenager in Bowling Green smoked a substance labeled "potpourri" that left her comatose. He also mentioned a fatality in Hopkinsville that was attributed to a synthetic drug.

Unlike earlier legislation, which makers of the drugs were able to skirt by slightly altering their formulas, Tilley said his bill would ban compounds that can be used in various ways to make the drugs. His approach would also use an existing counterfeit drugs statute to ban classes of substances intended to mimic better-known drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamine.

Yet the synthetic drugs are far more dangerous than marijuana, Tilley said.

Jeremy Triplett, a controlled substances specialist for the Kentucky State Police, said they more closely resemble meth.

"These are a severe threat to our public health," Tilley said.

The drugs are not chemically similar to real bath salts used as skin softeners, or to actual incense, Triplett said.

Under Tilley's bill, penalties could include up to a year in jail, a fine equal to twice the amount of the offender's profits, which could amount to tens of thousands of dollars, and forfeiture of property. If the business sells alcoholic beverages, its alcohol license could be revoked.

The punishment for a first offense could be more lenient because there are some convenience store owners who may not know the dangers of the substances they're selling. The penalties for a second offense could be much stronger, Tilley said.

Offenders would also have to pay the costs of the cleanup of their drug labs.

Tilley mentioned that some local governments have already passed their own ordinances.

"It has had a deterrent effect," he said.

The prescription drug bill would move the KASPER drug monitoring system from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to the Office of the Attorney General because "it is a law enforcement tool," said Stumbo, who is a former attorney general.

The bill would require the attorney general, the state police and the medical licensing boards to share KASPER information, and prosecutors could also access the monitoring system.

Pain clinics would have to be owned by licensed physicians or nurse practitioners, and those who prescribe Schedule II and Schedule III drugs would first have to register with KASPER.

Currently only about one-third of doctors are registered, Stumbo said.

The bill would allow the emergency temporary suspension of doctors' licenses in cases where it's determined there is a public health threat. It would also give those boards 60 days to evaluate complaints.

Emergency services, hospices and nursing homes would be excluded from the provisions.

Stumbo said it was not his intention to go after all pain clinics, only those he called "pill mills."

"There is a place in medicine for pain management. There is no doubt about that," he said.

Heather Wright, the chief executive officer and attorney for the Pain Treatment Center of the Bluegrass, said she appreciates Stumbo's efforts to "shut down the pill mills" that are giving legitimate practices like hers "a bad name."

She said her company has no problem with the requirement that clinics be owned by physicians or nurse practitioners, as hers is. But she was concerned about some "due process" aspects of the bill, including allowing the anonymous reporting of suspected violations. She feared that would lead to "frivolous complaints."

Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said he believes federal regulations prohibit the sharing of online information from a national monitoring program with any organization other than law enforcement agencies. Stumbo and Pierce Whites, an attorney for the speaker's office, said they thought the bill would not violate federal rules, but they would look into the issue.

The bill allows the attorney general's staff to cooperate with other states on online monitoring and share information.