Gov. Bill Haslam takes part in a signing ceremony at Tennessee High Monday. David Grace photo.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Synthetic drug sellers and makers now face felony jail time and fines up to $5,000 following a ceremonial legislation signing by Gov. Bill Haslam in front of Tennessee High School’s student body Monday.
Two bills sponsored by state Reps. Jon Lundberg and Tony Shipley — which address both synthetic marijuana and bath salts similar to controlled substances — are now law. Shipley’s bill took effect Monday, while the effective date of Lundberg’s legislation was April 27.
The law also allows authorities to declare synthetic drug businesses as a public nuisance.
Haslam indicated earlier this year he didn’t know that much about synthetic drugs, but then began hearing about student protests outside local head shops.
“I think one of the things that affected our thinking ... was this is a big issue,” Haslam told reporters following the legislation signing at Viking Hall. “We had a student death up here, and we heard repeated tales from the emergency rooms here about how many patients they were seeing from bath salts or synthetic drugs. It really was something becoming way too commonplace. This place was the epicenter of it.”
Shipley, R-Kingsport, asked THS students: “How many of you know someone who’s taken bath salts or know where they’ve bought bath salts?”
Many hands went up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the reason we passed this law. This was an epidemic attacking our community,” Shipley declared.
Concerning synthetic drug use at THS, Bristol Tennessee Schools Director Gary Lilly said: “We have had some incidents of students bringing synthetic drugs to school, and we’ve dealt with those as they are real drugs, but thankfully we’ve had no fatalities.”
Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus thanked citizens for taking their kids to synthetic drug forums and turning up the pressure on head shop operators.
“People petitioned and they protested at shops that sold these drugs, and they offered encouragement to me and local leaders,” Staubus said of the public outcry.
But outside of Northeast Tennessee, Lundberg pointed out: “There were other parts of the state that said ‘What are bath salts?’”
Haslam’s administration included more than $300,000 in the recently passed state budget to pay for incarceration expenses in the law. Those expenses were based on more than 60 people going into the Department of Corrections for a controlled substance or imitation controlled substance offense in each of the past 10 years.
The new laws and increased public focus on synthetic drugs, Lundberg said, apparently have scared off synthetic drug sellers. He added synthetic drug cases in local emergency rooms have dropped dramatically.
“I think it’s had an impact that people know it’s illegal. ... It hit us the worst,” Lundberg observed.
Tennessee Health Commissioner John J. Dreyzehner said there hasn’t been “an entire medical understanding” of what synthetic drugs do to people.
“People will look to other things to try and get the same type of effect they were getting from the substances earlier available to them...” Dreyzehner said. “Synthetic drugs are one of those types of drugs that have been far too available in recent years, and we hope this legislation will make it more difficult for people to abuse it.”
Still, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey warned the battle over synthetic drugs isn’t done.
“Just because we make it illegal ... just because we have the tools to prosecute it, it doesn’t mean it’s going to go away,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, told THS students. “I want to encourage you students, and those who are graduating, please stay on top of this.”
For more information go to www.capitol.tn.gov. Shipley’s bill was HB 3175. Lundberg’s bill was HB 2286.