Heroin abuse again gets Albany's attention

ALBANY -- Senate Republicans on Tuesday planned to pass a package of bills to toughen penalties against heroin dealers, saying stronger laws are needed to fight the drug scourge across New York.

The bills were the latest effort by state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to bolster drug treatment, improve heath-insurance coverage and crack down on sales of heron amid a rapid rise in overdoses.

Opioid-related deaths rose 71 percent between 2010 and 2015 in New York, a report in April from the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany found.

One of the bills would make it a homicide if a dealer sells an opioid to a user who dies after taking the drug.
"We continue to lose a generation of people, so that sends a very clear message that we have additional work to do," Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Colesville, Broome County, said at a news conference at the Capitol. "I would respectfully offer that this is the most pervasive issue that our communities are facing."

The bills were set to pass with just a week left in the legislative session, making the chances of their approval in the Democratic-led Assembly uncertain.

Mike Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, said the conference remains focused on treatment and prevention.

"Enhanced penalties are not a solution to addiction," Whyland said. "Our position has always been to give people access to services and treatment so we can set them on a path to leading productive lives. That's the place we should be starting from."

But Republicans urged the Assembly to adopt the GOP's measures, saying more laws are needed to hold drug dealers more accountable and improve regulation of synthetic opioids.

"We’re not talking about users. We’re talking about dealers; people that are mixing already deadly heroin with fentanyl knowing that it has a good chance of killing people," said Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, Monroe County.

One bill would increase the penalties for sale of a controlled substance by an adult to a minor, and health-care providers would need written consent from a minor’s parent or to prescribe an opioid.

Other proposals included creating a specific charge for selling drugs near a substance-abuse facility and changing penal law so any possession of 50 or more individual packages of heroin worth more than $300 is charged as intent to sell.

The Senate also wants to add six new types of fentanyl, a dangerous drug often added to heroin, to the state's illegal drug list.

In recent years, the state has invested more than $200 million into treatment programs for heroin, and Cuomo and lawmakers have agreed to a series of reforms.  "Under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, New York state continues to take aggressive steps to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic," the state Health Department said in a statement.

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