Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

The nation's top lawmakers and public health experts recently convened in Atlanta for the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit to learn the latest about our drug epidemic and how to stop it. Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers was one of the featured speakers and said “This week we’re dealing in hope. We’re here to do more than talk. We’re here to act.”

Kentucky had a big footprint at the conference which included a presentation by Gov. Matt Bevin. Kentucky State Police Commissioner Richard W. Sanders moderated a panel discussion. University of Kentucky Healthcare was the platinum sponsor for the event, perhaps because we're at the epicenter of the opioid crisis and have an overdose rate more than 1.5 times higher than the national average.

In 2015, the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy reported overdose deaths reached an all-time high of 1248. That's nearly three drug overdose deaths per day in the Bluegrass and the numbers don't appear to be decreasing.

We've seen wave after wave of drug fads in our commonwealth. In my home region of Western Kentucky, meth production was so bad a decade ago that farmers couldn't leave their nitrous ammonia tanks in the fields because they'd be stolen. They're just beginning to return. 

Now it's another drug. The headline I read the other day was startling: "$1.5M Worth Of Heroin Seized From Semi In Ky." That was 33 pounds of the illicit drug seized on a highway I regularly travel adjacent to the county where I live.  

The Kentucky legislature has worked tirelessly to deal with the epidemic of addiction that has caused too much pain and taken far too many lives.  It made naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdose, more widely available to emergency first responders. It can now be purchased over the counter.

In 2017 the Kentucky General Assembly toughened penalties for trafficking even small amounts of heroin and added the highly potent fentanyl. Trafficking in less than two grams is now a Class C felony punishable by five to 10 years in prison. They also limited opioid prescriptions to a three-day supply. It remains to be seen if these laws will have an impact. The beat goes on.

Controlling Kentucky's drug epidemic is like squeezing a balloon. The law may have a grip on one dangerous drug while a bulge in the form of another lesser-regulated drug emerges elsewhere. The drug epidemic will continue to ravage lives until the air no longer fills the balloon. In other words, deep heart and soul issues must be addressed and this is something the state is powerless to fix.

In 2015, the General Assembly allocated $24 million for drug addiction treatment. It's a good start, but addiction boils down to a person trying to numb their pain and relieve their sadness. And the best one to speak to this is the faith community, which has been overlooked when it comes to beating addiction. The faith community was conspicuously absent from the Atlanta Summit. Either they weren't invited or they refused to attend.

Money can be spent and conferences can be planned (the Atlanta Summit enjoyed some of the brightest minds and most powerful leaders in the nation), and some good might be achieved, but so long as the faith community doesn't play a role, we neglect a major asset that can get to the heart of the issue by addressing the soul.

Churches and faith-based ministries articulate moral limits on behavior and a vision for the true, the beautiful and the good.  Christ-centered rehab ministries like Teen Challenge, which has a treatment center in Louisville, boasts a high rehabilitation success rate for addicts who complete their program precisely because they address sin and life-controlling issues and point to redemption. According to a 2011 Wilder Research follow-up study of Minnesota Teen Challenge graduates from between 2007-2009, 74 percent reported they didn’t use drugs in the six months prior to follow-up.

If there's one thing we've learned from the opioid crisis, it's that we're in a war for our loved ones and the communities we call home.  If this war is to be won, faith-based rehab ministries must be included in mainstream and community collaborative efforts so they can speak to the hearts of the drug-addicted in order to help all of society address the heart of the problem.

This column appeared in the May 16, 2017 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.