published Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Tennessee: Bills aimed at synthetic drugs on the move

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, in this file photo.
Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Lawmakers introduced a number of pieces of legislation this session to bolster laws against synthetic drugs in Tennessee after some in local law enforcement expressed concerns that current laws allowed room for the bad guys to duck the state code.

Until state and federal laws enacted over the last year or so cut into availability, convenience stores and "head shops" across the state openly sold synthetic marijuana under names such as Spice, JH/Kush and K2. Synthetic cocaine and ecstasy also were sold as "bath salts" under names such as Ivory Wave, Cloud 9, White Lightning and Molly's Plant Food.

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, one of several lawmakers pitching legislation at the problem, said officials are trying to keep up with changes that distributors and manufacturers make to get around the current laws. State laws now ban specific ingredients in the synthetic drugs and makers simply change the formula to avoid the law.

"All [synthetics manufacturers] have to do is change one of the chains in the compound and it becomes a new compound that is not illegal," Sexton said. "You're always fighting the technology."

That fight prompted municipal ordinances in the Franklin County towns of Winchester, Decherd, Estill Springs, Cowan and Huntland, where officials have used noncriminal bans that address "any substance that mimics the effects of any controlled substances" to define broadly the substances used to make synthetic drugs.

Since then, towns across the state have passed similar measures to try to stem the tide, but under state law, municipalities cannot criminalize the substances, only the Legislature can do that.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation on Tuesday that outlaws all forms of synthetic marijuana. Senate Bill 370 was named Chase's Law after 16-year-old Chase Corbitt Burnett who was found dead in his Fayette County home after smoking the substance.

In Tennessee, other new laws are aimed at strengthening possession laws and punishing stores that sell the substances.

Two bills are at the forefront, Sexton said, one by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, and another by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Sexton said Williams' bill, which mirrors a Kansas law, singles out a compound present in current derivatives of synthetic stimulants called methcathinone.

A bill also was introduced to change the language in the possession law from "possession with intent" to obtain an illegal high to simply prohibit "possession" of the substance, he said.

And store owners are in the bull's-eye on another bill.

"We need to hold the business accountable," Sexton said. "We need to have the ability to shut that business down for a period of time to really put an end to this problem."

The law enforcement community will be happy to see laws with some teeth, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm.

"We absolutely would like to see stricter penalties," Helm said. "I think the legislation is pretty good as far as changing chemical compounds."

Authorities need the "firm ability to charge individuals who possess or distribute synthetic drugs," she said.

The TBI has been keeping a catalog of synthetic drug names and chemical breakdowns, Helm said.

"So far, we have cataloged 337 and that number continues to grow," she said.

Efforts lauded

Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Executive Director Paul Fuchcar, chairman of the policy and planning committee for the state Department of Mental Health, applauded lawmakers' moves to eliminate synthetics disguised in colorful packaging that almost look like children's candy.

"We're seeing a lot of experimentation, primarily among adolescents who probably don't understand how dangerous [the drugs] are and the effects that they have," Fuchcar said.

Adolescents are more prone to succumb to peer pressure and are at higher risk for trying the drugs despite the dangers, he said.

"We're talking about extreme sedation, short-term memory loss, paranoia, confusion, seizures," he said. "This can happen on your first time. It's not like it's from sustained use that is something that occurs after your 20th time. [Adverse symptoms] can occur very quickly."

Parents must start educating children early "and we have to repeat it," he said.

Franklin County Prevention Coalition member Tabatha Curtis said strengthened laws should make a difference, and talked last November about her contact with adolescent users.

Curtis counseled a 12-year-old boy last year who had dangerous reactions to synthetic marijuana that included "a horrible headache and felt like his heart was going to beat out of his chest," but he had continued to smoke fake pot, she said, because children and teens "don't have the mentality to know what kind of damage this is doing to their bodies."

On Friday, Curtis was hopeful.

"If they get something passed, coalitions all over Tennessee will be jumping for joy," she said.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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