KINGSPORT — Tri-Cities governments asked for a ban on over-the-counter synthetic drugs emulating marijuana and amphetamines in handing over their legislative policy wish list to Northeast Tennessee lawmakers on Friday.
The Joint Legislative Policy of the Tri-Cities directed lawmakers to develop a broad legislative approach to get rid of “any and all formulations” of synthetic drugs sold primarily in specialty shops and at convenience stores.
“We don’t have a problem. We have an epidemic, ...” Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips said at a meeting held at the MeadowView Marriott. “In our school system alone, it’s amazing the number of students that are being sent to the clinic with rapid heartbeats and other symptoms of drug use. We used to not like to talk about drugs in schools. No school had a drug problem. Let me tell you, every school has a drug problem.
“If we don’t get a handle on this, we’re not going to have to worry about anything else in the state or city, either. ... These drug dealers almost have more money than the state budget.”
Both state Reps. Jon Lundberg and Tony Shipley said they’ve drafted bills to criminalize distributing, selling and possessing synthetic drugs.
“I will guarantee you this issue will be tops on our radar,” Lundberg, R-Bristol, told the group of locally elected officials and staff.
Shipley, R-Kingsport, promised a bill would be passed by mid-March and go into effect immediately after being signed by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Phillips asked the lawmakers to not let the legislation get bogged down in the state’s Fiscal Review Committee since the bill is expected to have high incarceration costs for the state.
“I can guarantee you there’s a cost if we don’t do something. ... Don’t let a bill making synthetic drugs a felony get caught up ... where it’s going to cost some money and we don’t pass it. ... If we have to bring every citizen to Nashville to testify, let us know,” Phillips said.
Besides synthetic drugs, the local governments also believed the state should pay for the cleanup of illegal meth labs. State Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, reminded local officials he sponsored an amendment in the last legislative session adding $5 million in the state budget for meth cleanup.
The local governments also had recurring requests: Full funding for the state’s Basic Education Program supporting K-12 education; state support for regional fire training centers; no unfunded mandates; and opposition to collective bargaining for their employees.
“Our employees have a lot of employment protection. ... There’s a lot we have placed on ourselves to make sure the employee is treated fairly and that they have a good benefit package,” City Manager Pete Peterson of Johnson City said.
David Shumaker, mayor of Bristol, Tenn., said the governments support reconstructing the Interstate 26/81 interchange — a job in the state’s planning phase.
“That’s a dangerous intersection,” Shumaker said. “Too many tractor-trailers come through there too fast and flip over.”
The local governments also asked lawmakers for more economic incentives to help Tri-Cities Regional Airport’s airfield development. In a side announcement, TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson said airport officials are talking with an airline to offer service to Nashville.
Shumaker said local governments also back legislation creating a 5 cent local option gas tax, to be approved by voters, to improve highways, plus restoring a local single-article sales tax cap on big-ticket items as a revenue source.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said both those items would be a tough sell.
“The most important message I heard from you today is do us no harm,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, told local government officials.