Legislation To Curb Drug Abuse Sent To Governnor

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The Tennessee General Assembly debated the state budget and major legislation this past week attacking prescription and synthetic drug abuse as the legislature prepares to close the 2012 legislative session. The legislation to curb drug abuse in Tennessee was among a list of key bills passed by the General Assembly this year.

Synthetic Drugs – Two key bills attacking the growing problem of synthetic or “designer” drug abuse are now on their way to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature after passage by State Senators this week.  Senate Bill 3018, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers, takes another approach to attack synthetic drug abuse by defining it to capture any analogues, which are chemical compounds having a similar structure to the banned drug.

This legislation creates a new Class D felony offense for a person to knowingly manufacture, deliver, dispense or sell a controlled substance analogue. The proposal elevates penalties upon a second or subsequent violation to a Class C felony. If the violation involves the delivery, dispensing or sale of a controlled substance analogue to a minor, the offender will be punished one classification higher than the punishment for delivering, dispensing or selling to an adult. The bill also creates a new Class A misdemeanor offense for a person knowingly to possess or casually exchange under a gram of a controlled substance analogue.

“We are very hopeful that the new definition will give clarity regarding what constitutes the illegal drug, while strengthening penalties will make certain that these substances are out of reach of Tennessee’s youth,” said Senator Beavers.

Likewise, Senate Bill 2280 makes it a Class E felony to possess, use or sell synthetic substances intended to imitate controlled substances. 

Synthetic drug products are sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” but are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as mimics of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine.  The effects of synthetic drugs include impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes.   Although the General Assembly has passed laws previously to ban the chemical compound used in synthetic drugs, unscrupulous chemists continue to modify molecules in the organic compound to avoid prosecution.  Law enforcement officials have testified that by the time a new synthetic drug is discovered and banned, another altered form of the compound has taken its place. 

Prescription Drug Abuse / Hospital Employees – The State Senate approved a House amendment and sent to the Governor legislation to authorize the Controlled Substance Database Committee to provide a hospital or mental health facility an employee’s prescribing information.  Under current law, a hospital’s Quality Improvement Committee exists to evaluate the safety and quality of care provided to patients as well as qualifications and competency of healthcare providers in a confidential and privileged environment.  Senate Bill 2407 would give hospitals more information about any potential for prescription abuse by their own employees. 

Drug Test / Welfare Recipients – In similar action to prevent drug abuse, the Senate passed legislation which calls for drug testing for welfare applicants.  The bill would apply to testing for illegal use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and opiates such as morphine, with the possibility that other drugs could be added later by rules set forth under the bill.  Senate Bill 2580 applies to adult recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. 

The drug testing plan includes a referral process for any applicant who tests positive to be referred to an appropriate treatment resource for drug abuse.  If the applicant is otherwise eligible during the treatment period, he or she can receive TANF benefits during the treatment period for up to six months.  If the applicant refuses treatment, he or she would be disqualified.  After six months of disqualification, the applicant can reapply, but upon testing positive again he or she would become ineligible for one year.

Under the federal Welfare Reform Act passed in 1996, states were authorized to conduct drug testing for TANF recipients.  The implementation would occur in phases over a two-year period under the bill.  The Department of Human Services would develop appropriate screening techniques and processes to establish reasonable cause that an applicant for TANF is using a drug illegally.  The applicant could then be required to undergo a urine-based drug test to be conducted by a drug testing agency.  If the applicant tests positive, the drug test would have to be verified by a confirmation test before TANF benefits could be denied.  No drug for which an applicant has a current valid prescription could be used as a basis for denial of benefits. 

Issues in Brief

Womens' Health – Legislation was passed this week to create a safer medical climate for women after an abortion by requiring that physicians performing them must have hospital admitting privileges in the same or adjoining county of the locality in which it was conducted.  The bill would help women who have complications following an abortion to receive better post-abortion care if they have an emergency and need to be hospitalized.  This bill would ensure the physician responsible and knowledgeable of the woman’s specific condition and health history can attend her after she is admitted to the hospital. 

Senate Bill 3323, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers, follows expert testimony that patients have been left to fend for themselves for emergency follow-up care following complications.  Experts maintain that complications of any procedure are best managed by those providers with the most experience in the particular field.

Embryo / Fetal Homicide – A bill has been approved to broaden the offenses for assault and criminal homicide committed against pregnant women to include an embryo.  The embryo would be in addition to a fetus which was included as a separate offense and passed in 2011.  Senate Bill 3412, sponsored by Senator Beavers, ensures that perpetrators are punished, regardless of the viability of the victim. 

Severe Child Abuse / Parents – State Senators voted in favor of Senate Bill 2741 that would allow a parent to file a petition with the court to terminate the parental rights of the other parent if he/she has been found by a criminal court to have committed severe abuse of a child. Currently, a child’s parent is not allowed to petition for termination of parental rights under any circumstances.  This legislation would provide a new ground that in the case of commission of incest, aggravated sexual exploitation or severe or aggravated child sexual abuse, rape, or sexual battery that termination of parental rights can be initiated. 

Domestic Violence / 911 – Legislation which strengthens penalties against those convicted of domestic violence was approved, sending the bill to Governor Bill Haslam for his signature.  The “Repeat Domestic Violence Offender” bill creates a new offense for repeat domestic violence offenders and prescribes mandatory jail time and enhanced fines for those who have committed serious bodily injury.  Senate Bill 2251 provides at least 30 days in jail and a fine ranging from $350 to $3,500 for those convicted of a second offense for domestic violence when bodily injury occurs.  Upon a third or a subsequent conviction, the mandatory jail time would increase to 90 days and a fine ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.  In counting prior convictions, the bill provides for a ten-year look back provision for domestic violence due to serious bodily injury similar to the one used in the state’s drunk driving law.

Also, legislation passed this week that would make it a Class A misdemeanor offense for an individual to interfere with or prevent another person from placing a telephone call to 911 to request emergency assistance.  Senate Bill 2836 aims to help victims of domestic violence who try to receive emergency assistance but are blocked in those efforts.  The measure applies to those who block a person from requesting assistance from law enforcement, medical facilities, or other agencies or entities that provide assistance to that individual. It also makes it a Class A misdemeanor to intentionally render unusable a telephone that would be used for the purposes of obtaining aid.

Storm Victims – Legislation which would help storm victims who received damage due to the March storms was approved by the State Senate on final consideration.  Senate Bill 2701 allows for citizens who suffered damages between March 23, 2011, and May 12, 2012 and who qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to apply for tax rebates on household appliances and furnishings of up to $3,200 per item and on building materials up to $500 per item. The rebates are capped at $2,500 per household.

Resolutions / Appellate Judges – The State Senate voted to approve on third and final reading a resolution that would allow Tennesseans to vote on whether or not they want to use a merit-based appointment system for selecting the state’s Supreme Court and intermediate appellate judges, followed by a retention vote of the people.  Senate Joint Resolution 710 calls for appointment of state appellate judges in a manner similar to the federal model by allowing Tennessee’s Governor to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and state appellate courts, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, for eight year terms. The resolution must be approved by a simple majority of the legislature this year after three readings and must receive a two-thirds majority of both chambers in the following General Assembly.  Then it would go to a vote of the people in 2014.

Unemployment Insurance / Seasonal Workers – The Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012, Senate Bill 3658, strengthens the definition of employee misconduct to ensure that those who have been fired for cause no longer receive benefits. The act also enacts new work search requirements for unemployment beneficiaries. Those collecting unemployment benefits must provide detailed information regarding contact with at least three employers per week or must access services at a career center. The act also provides for random audits to ensure the integrity of beneficiaries’ job searches.

Similarly, Senators approved Senate Bill 3657, which establishes qualifications and criteria for determining benefit amounts paid to seasonal employees. The bill allows an employer to qualify as a “seasonal employer” for purposes of unemployment insurance benefits and establishes the benefits an employee of a seasonal employer will receive beginning in 2016. 

Tennessee Game and Fish Commission – Legislation that keeps in place a citizen board to ensures the state’s natural habitat is protected through sound management practices has been approved by the General Assembly. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission is the board which sets policy for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). The Commission is currently in “wind down” after sunset legislation to continue it failed in the House Government Operations Committee. Without action by the legislature, the Commission will expire on July 1, leaving management of the state’s natural resources in limbo. Senate Bill 3590 establishes the Tennessee Game & Fish Commission to carry on the commission’s duties after it expires. 

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