|New state synthetic drug law mirrors city ordinance|
|Wednesday, May 16, 2012|
By PATRICK HALL
A new state law that went into effect Monday shows major strides in the fight against synthetic drugs, defining the drugs to include all analogous forms and putting a Class D felony offense on charges related to the manufacturing, deliver, dispense or sell the synthetic drugs.
Senate Bill 3018, sponsored by District 17 State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, allows law enforcement agencies statewide to stay one step ahead of synthetic drug manufacturers instead of one step behind.
Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen said the state already had a law banning synthetic drugs, but noted manufacturers would simply change chemical compounds to avoid the old law.
“The chemists would change a few molecules and would just skirt around it,” he said.
Synthetic drugs are substances sold as “bath salts” or “plant food” but comprised of chemicals perceived as mimics of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine. The effects include impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes.
“This legislation defines them in a way that helps to ensure that manufacturers or drug dealers cannot skirt the law,” said Beavers, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bowen said the state law actually mirrors the current city ordinance passed by Lebanon City Council in 2011 banning synthetic drugs. He said a copy of the ordinance was given to Beavers and to District 46 State Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, after its passage last year.
The city ordinance and new state law define synthetic drugs to capture any analogues, or chemical compounds that have a similar structure to the banned drug. As a result, Bowen said it’s more difficult for chemists to alter the makeup of a drug to bypass the law.
Also, the state law creates a new Class D felony offense for a person to knowingly manufacture, deliver, dispense or sell a controlled substance analogue. The proposal also elevates penalties upon a second or subsequent violation to a Class C felony.
The law also creates a new Class A misdemeanor offense for a person knowingly possessing or casually exchanging under a gram of a controlled substance analogue.
“This makes it criminal. The law is written the way ours is written, but this definitely gives us more teeth,” Bowen said.
The city ordinance was only civil in nature, which Bowen said only gave the Police Department the ability to fine individuals or businesses for selling or possessing the drug. Several synthetic drug busts have been carried out in Lebanon since the law was passed.
However, Bowen said most businesses took the products off their shelves and stopped selling them when the LPD issued a letter about the new city ordinance in July 2011.
“I can’t say enough about (Lebanon City Mayor Philip Craighead) and the council for their support and recognizing the dangers,” Bowen said. “This has probably kept someone from dying in our community.”
Bowen said when the drugs are found or seized they are sent to a crime laboratory and the chemical compounds are determined, allowing law enforcement to identify any possibly banned substances.
Gov. Bill Haslam signed the new law in a ceremony in Bristol, Tenn., on Monday.
“I am very pleased this legislation has been signed into law,” Beavers said. “This is a huge problem in Tennessee as we see more and more people show up in emergency rooms across the state due to the powerful and harmful effects of these drugs.”
Bowen said the city’s ordinance kept Lebanon on the forefront of the fight against what he perceives as one of the worst threats to the community. He said many other law enforcement agencies have contacted him wanting a copy of the city’s ordinance.
“It shows the city was up front and trying to head this off,” the police chief noted. “In my mind, this now makes our city ordinance moot.”
The city ordinance placed a maximum fine of $50 for violators of the law for each individual offense. Bowen said the state law has now made the punishment more severe. A Class D felony carries a sentence of no less than two years and no more than 12 years in prison. In addition, a jury may assess a fine of up to $5,000.