Capitol Hill Week: Lawmakers attack growing use of synthetic drugs in Tennessee

(NASHVILLE, TN), January 26, 2012 —  Major legislation attacking the growing problem of synthetic or “designer” drug abuse was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.   The action comes as poison centers, hospitals and law enforcement officers in Tennessee report a sharp increase in the number of persons who have suffered harmful effects from using various synthetic drug products.  Senate Bill 2172, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), increases penalties for those convicted of selling or producing synthetic drugs and defines it in such a way that manufacturers cannot skirt the law to avoid prosecution.

Synthetic drug products, which have become increasingly popular among teens and young adults, are sold at a variety of retail outlets like convenience stores, smoke shops and over the Internet.  They commonly feature cartoon characters on package labels.  Some law enforcement authorities have even said that due to the huge increase, the dangerous substance has the potential to eclipse methamphetamine as the most dangerous drug in Tennessee unless action is taken. 

The 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 include impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes.  Experts say the long-term physical and psychological effects of the drug are unknown but warn they could be severe.   
 
“The General Assembly passed legislation to ban the chemical compound used in synthetic drugs; however, unscrupulous chemists manufacturing the drugs continue to modify molecules in the organic compound to avoid prosecution,” said Senator Beavers.  “By the time a new synthetic drug is discovered and banned, another altered form of the compound has taken its place.”

The bill approved by the committee this week defines synthetic drugs in such a way as to capture any analogues.  An analogue is a chemical compound having a similar structure to the banned drug.  In determining if a synthetic drug is an “analogue controlled substance,” there are four law enforcement factors that must be considered and eight scientific factors which serve to define them.  These include whether an analogue has a stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system.  Another important factor is the price difference between the substance for sale and the actual price of the legitimate product which is described in packaging or marketing the product. 

“For example, consumers can purchase approximately 10 pounds of actual bath salts or plant food for what one gram of a synthetic substance packaged as these products costs,” added Beavers.  “The price differential also puts sellers on notice that what they might think is legal to sell may really be a controlled substance analogue.”

The legislation increases penalties for selling, manufacturing or possessing a synthetic drug or controlled substance analogue from a misdemeanor to a Class D felony.  The penalties would increase to a Class C felony if it is a second or subsequent offense or if the analogue is sold to a minor.  Simple possession of 1 gram or less would be a Class A misdemeanor under the bill as would representing something as a controlled substance analogue when it is not.

“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.

Meth Registry — In similar action, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation to tighten a loophole in the state’s Meth Registry.  Senate Bill 2190, sponsored by Senator Beavers, adds those convicted of promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine and those who initiated a process intended to result in the manufacture of meth to the state’s Registry.  In addition, the legislation requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to collect a driver’s license number or another identification number from those listed on the Registry so innocent citizens with similar names and birthdates do not run into a roadblock when they purchase pseudoephedrine.

Bills help teachers address student discipline

Two bills have been filed in the Tennessee General Assembly to give teachers more authority and protection in disciplining students.  One proposal, Senate Bill 3122, would give teachers protection from civil liability when defending themselves or when they have to intervene in a physical altercation.  The other measure, Senate Bill 3116, gives teachers basic rights to control their classroom and remove consistently disruptive or violent students.

“As I have listened to teachers, I have found they are afraid to even defend themselves if a student gets out of control for fear of liability,” said Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), sponsor of the bill.  “This legislation ensures that teachers have this right so they do not have to fear being sued when defending themselves.”

Senate Bill 3116 requires local Boards of Educations to establish clearly a complete policy regarding a teacher’s ability to remove a student from the classroom and relocate the student to another educational location for the student’s safety or the safety of others.  The bill allows the use of reasonable or justifiable force as long as it is done in accordance to school policy and Tennessee law.  The bill also allows teachers to intervene in a physical altercation between two or more students or a student and another school employee if necessary to end the fight. 

The legislation applies to altercations on school property, as well as at official school functions or sporting events. Under the proposal, the teacher must file a brief report with the principal regarding the situation and actions taken.  The student would then be subject to additional disciplinary action that could include suspension or expulsion from school. Finally, the bill requires principals to support the authority of teachers who take such action if it is done in accordance with the proposed law and the school’s policies.

 “I have also found in listening to teachers that many are at a disadvantage in being able to maintain discipline in the classroom due to rules on removal of consistently disruptive students,” added Gresham.  “This not only hampers student progress, but puts teachers at a disadvantage in achieving their evaluative goals.  It would be unfair to expect a fair evaluation when the teacher is not given the resources and support to control disruptive students. Senate Bill 3116 would give teachers the ability to manage their classrooms and even remove a student if it gets to the point where the behavior is persistently disruptive.”

“Teachers must have the authority to discipline students who are disorderly in order to maintain order in the classroom,” added Gresham.  “We will continue working with teacher organizations, school employees and other education stakeholders as we work to perfect the bill during the legislative process.”

Treasurer Lillard discusses need for strong Tennessee College Savings Plan

As college tuition rises, parents and students need to be financially prepared if Tennessee is going to reach its goal of increasing the number of post-secondary degrees says State Treasurer David Lillard.  Treasurer Lillard spoke to the Senate Finance Committee regarding Tennessee’s 529 College Savings Account, which allows persons to contribute to an account established to pay a student’s qualified education expenses at an eligible educational institution.

As a Qualified Tuition Program under Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, withdrawals are federal income tax-free for college expenses such as tuition, books, some room and board expenses, and equipment and supplies at eligible educational institutions.  Lillard is looking to market the benefits of the College Savings Account to students, parents, and business partners across the state, including placing information regarding the plan in the financial literacy curriculum taught in Tennessee schools. 

Tennessee is currently 42nd in the nation in college attainment with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree.  The state’s public agenda for higher education, implementing the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010, sets the goal to increase annual degree production by 4 percent year-over-year by 2025 for Tennessee’s college attainment rate to equal the national average.  To reach that goal, the number of degrees awarded must increase an additional 210,000 cumulatively by 2025.

“One of the things that has been observed about these programs is that if you establish an account, it sets an expectation that that child is going to college or do post secondary work,” said Lillard. 

Lillard said student loans now total over $800 billion or 7 percent of all US mortgage and household debt nationwide.  Tennessee student debt is approximately $812 million. 

“College savings is key to reducing excessive student loan debt,” Lillard added. 

“It is important that we have a strong college savings program to help meet the state’s ambitious college attainment goals,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, who is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.  “It is also key to achieving a Tennessee workforce with 21st century jobs skills, which will help our students compete in a very competitive global economy.”

The Treasurer is planning improvements which will feature such items as electronic transfer and direct deposit from multiple sources; flexible investment options; including self-selection; target date options based on when funds will be needed for college; and an FDIC insured and risk-based options.  The Tennessee Treasurer’s office is also working on versatile web-based applications to provide for a variety of services for consumers.

Local Government / Retirement for New Hires  — Lillard also briefed Finance Committee members on several new retirement options for local governments to consider for new hires.  Lillard stressed that none of the suggested changes would affect K-12 teachers, state employees or higher education employees who are covered under the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS).
The options presented were:
• local governments may take no action and remain in the current TCRS defined benefit pension plan with retirement generally at 30 years of service or age 60;
• local governments may adopt a TCRS defined benefit pension plan with an annual service accrual rate of 1.4%, with an increase in retirement age, limits on cost of living adjustments, a cap on maximum allowed benefits and a revised employee contribution structure;
• local governments may adopt a TCRS defined benefit pension plan with an annual service accrual rate of 1% to offer reduced pension benefits, but with a  supplemental deferred compensation program; or,
• local governments may decide to offer only a deferred compensation program as a standalone option.

Lillard said the proposals were developed following open meetings held throughout Tennessee with more than 200 local government representatives last fall.  For a copy of the local government pension option proposals and other documents go to http://treasury.tn.gov/tcrs and look at the tab titled “Proposed Plans for Local Gov’t.

Tennessee STEM Education Caucus kicks off inaugural meeting

The General Assembly’s new STEM Education Caucus met this week to begin the work on expanding the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in K-12 public schools across Tennessee. Caucus Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) told members and guests the 20 fastest growing professions require math and science preparation.  

“We want to be a leading beacon in STEM education,” said Tracy.  “We can work much faster at the state level than at the federal level to improve education in these subject areas. We know if we improve our education level, we can help young Tennesseans go out in the workplace and succeed.”

Eric Fingerhut, former Congressman, Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents and current Vice President for Education and STEM Learning at Battelle, told Caucus members Tennessee is leading a multi-state effort to improve learning opportunities because of the important work they have done to promote STEM education. 

Eleven states, including Tennessee, have formed innovation networks to share best practices in STEM education.  Battelle has partnered with Tennessee in the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network to expand educational opportunities and outcomes and to create new STEM teaching and learning models that can be shared with the rest of the country.  Established as a project within the Tennessee Department of Education, the Network conducts various STEM educational activities in coordination with local education agencies including teacher professional development and curriculum development.

“Where the rubber meets the road is in the states,” said Fingerhut.  “That is where this problem is going to be tackled and solved.”  Fingerhut added, “When we live in times of high unemployment, we know the reason this occurs is because we don’t have the skill set for our young people to do these jobs.”

Issues in Brief

CPR / Education – The full Senate has approved legislation calling for schools to include hands-on practice in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) programs.  The current wellness curriculum in schools require CPR training.  Senate Bill 1680, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), ensures that this training includes hands-on practice as well.  The training for CPR is often provided by local emergency personnel who give demonstrations for the students and the opportunity to practice the life-saving skill.  The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Supreme Court Justices — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt.Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) announced their support this week for a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution to continue the system currently being used to elect the state’s Supreme Court Justices.  That system is based on nomination of the state’s supreme and appellate court judges by a nominating commission, with appointment by the Governor.  The judges are either retained or replaced by Tennessee voters through a retention election.  The Governor said the action is needed to ensure it is constitutionally correct.

Fuel Cell Technology —  Dr. Henry McDonald, Chair of Excellence and Computational Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, spoke to members of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee this week about their efforts to promote fuel cell technology.  The SimCenter at the University provides state-of-the-art degree programs in both content and equipment in the M.S. and Ph.D. programs.  The Center integrates research and education to establish next generation technologies in computational modeling, simulation, and design in support of such areas as defense, sustainable energy, environment, and health.

Financial Literacy Commission – Members of the Senate Government Operations Committee voted this week to extend the Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission until 2017.  The Commission was created by the General Assembly in 2010 and is housed in the Treasurer’s office. The Commission’s key goal is to have financial literacy education, including college savings, in every elementary classroom in Tennessee.  Senate Bill 2326, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), would extend the Commission as it works to increase financial literacy awareness, including college savings, through teachers, parents and grandparents of elementary school aged children. 

Child transportation safety — Members of the Senate Transportation Committee heard a presentation from Vanderbilt University Medical Center this week regarding child transportation safety and transporting children with special healthcare needs.  Tennessee is now graded an “A” by Safe Kids Worldwide, scoring a 90 out of 100 points on the strength of our current child restraint law.  Tennessee requires children through age 8 required to be in an appropriate child restraint.  There are still improvements which could be made as the Center reports that 82 percent of drivers had chosen the appropriate type of restraint but only 27 percent of restraints were being used properly.  The Center also reports that 24 percent of households in Tennessee have 1 or more children with special health care needs.  The Center assists families in fitting these children with car seats to conform to their needs and provide safety while traveling.

Autism — The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has steadily increased over the last two decades according to a report delivered by Joseph Woodson, Associate Legislative Research Analyst in the Comptrollers Office of Education Accountability.  Woodson gave lawmakers a report which provided a list of public policy considerations, including the fact that no comprehensive record is collected on methods of training and supports for autism students for local education agencies statewide.  The report said the needs of each child with autism are unique and suggested that educational interventions be individualized.  The report in its entirety will be available on the Comptroller’s website upon finalization.

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