VANCEBURG, Ky. -- House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Tilley will pre-file a bill in November for next year's legislative session to toughen the penalty for unlawful trafficking in synthetic drugs, making it a Class D felony punishable by one to five years in prison.
House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins brought policymakers to Vanceburg on Monday to announce the proposed bill in hopes it will reduce the spread of a dangerous drugthat has gained a foothold in Lewis County called "flakka." Rep. Denny Butler and Rep. Mike Denham also attended to show their support.
"There's really no deterrent at a misdemeanor level for these folks that are selling drugs that you could argue are more dangerous and more damaging to the user" than other drugs already punished at the felony level, Tilley said. And that needs to change.
Current law in the commonwealth limits punishment for trafficking in synthetic drugs as a Class A misdemeanor for the first offense. Second and additional offenses are punishable as a Class D felony.
"Luckily it has not engulfed our entire state," Tilley said of flakka. "Unfortunately it has your community. But we're going to get ahead of this in January and get something into legislation immediately. We'll speak with our governor, whoever that may be. We'll have an emergency clause on that legislation, and it'll be signed into law immediately. I have confidence we won't have to wait until the middle of the summer when most other laws become effective."
Law enforcement officials, including Lewis County Sheriff Johnny Bivens -- who has been dealing with flakka since December 2014 -- have pressed legislators to stiffen penalties because of the dangers posed by the drug. The Courier-Journal reported in July that the drug had appeared in Lewis County and experts said it was likely to spread.
Flakka looks like rock salt and sells for up to $500 a gram. The average is $250 a gram in Lewis County. Users describe experiencing a euphoria that lasts longer thancrack cocaine, and experts say the drug has a more intense stimulant effect than methamphetamine. It also causes racing heart rate, aggression and delusions.
But what makes the drug dangerous for law enforcement officials is that flakka can also trigger a dangerous syndrome called "excited delirium," which causes the body's temperature to spike to 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. It causes users to become paranoid and exhibit superhuman strength.
And law enforcement officials are starting to see it in counties across the state.
Laura Sudkamp, manager of the Kentucky State Police Central Crime Lab, said her labs are seeing five to 10 criminal cases of flakka per month. They originally saw thedrug in 2010. It faded but then had a resurgence in 2014, and it has not let up, she said.
Sheriff Bivens said after the press conference that the bill is a good start but that he hopes lawmakers will go even further to look at possession as well.
"I'll support any bill that stiffens the laws," he said. "However, I'd still like them to look at possession of the drug as a felony. That would make it consistent with heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine because there's not an ounce of difference.
"But what they're doing is a lot better than what we have in place now. And I hope it's a deterrent."
Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at (502) 582-4642 or firstname.lastname@example.org