Prescription Drug Abuse and Pregnancy in Tennessee

Prescription drug abuse committed by pregnant women is now a criminal offense in Tennessee. Beginning July 1, 2014, the state will prosecute women for harm done to their newborns.

Tennessee created The Safe Harbor Act of 2013 (House Bill 277) to alleviate the adverse effects of the drugs on infants and decrease the burden that drug-affected infants place on Tennessee’s taxpayers.  House Bill 277 granted pregnant women who were referred for drug dependence treatment to receive publicly funded treatment with no risk of criminal prosecution or petitions to terminate parental rights filed by the Department of Children’s Services.  All records and reports of said women were to be kept confidential.  The woman needs to remain compliant with the drug treatment program throughout the remainder of her pregnancy.  Unfortunately, that has all changed now.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation last Tuesday after conducting research including prescription drug abuse, mental health and law enforcement policy.  Haslam believes this is a more effective method in combating his states growing problem, “The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs.”

prescription drug abuseGroups opposing Haslam’s bill include local doctors, five national medical organizations and director, Hedy Weinberg, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee joined by the national ACLU.   “A pregnant woman struggling with drug or alcohol dependency will now be deterred from seeking the prenatal care she needs,” said Weinberg.

Many states have adopted the Internet System for Tracking Over Prescribing Act (I STOP), which stops addicts from “doctor shopping” (when patients visit multiple doctors to obtain controlled substance medications) and reduces acquiring them by 75%.  The National Conference of State Legislatures latest update on the Preventing Prescription Drug Overdose: 2014 Introduced State Legislation 2014 reported that of the three bills that Tennessee brought before the House and Senate that specifically addressed illegally obtaining prescription meds had failed.  They did in fact enact Senate Bill 1631 that would provide for immunity from civil liability for prescribers of opioid antagonists and those who administer it in order to address opioid-related drug overdoses.  Hummmmm.  Why are the providers of prescription meds protected from civil liability but the addicts are not?

How does this problem in Tennessee affect me, an out-of-stater might ask?  First, it perpetuates the mindset that addiction is a crime. Opting to withhold treatment spreads dangerous prejudice, intolerance and judgment about addiction, instead of treating it as the health crisis it is.  Second, it targets the poor.  Prescription drug addicts come from all walks of life, however this new bill in Tennessee is directly aimed at the low-income pregnant woman seeking treatment in state run facilities.  Third, Tennessee’s law specifically cites prescription drugs and makes no mention of heroin, alcohol or other dangerous drugs.  True, prescription drug abuse is rapidly on the rise, it’s the flavor-of-the-month right now.  But just wait, in a year or two, there will be something new to replace it.  Take a look at the history of drug and alcohol abuse and it’s plain to see.  Maybe policy makers should focus on asking themselves why this cycle continues to repeat itself?  Fourth, it sets in motion yet another “quick fix” approach in the growing epidemic of drug abuse that seems to be contagious.

What is happening in Tennessee is a step back in the treatment and prevention of drug abuse.  “America is discovering that it does indeed have a drug problem,” stated Justice Policy Institute Director Vincent Schiraldi. “And that problem is that we’ve focused on imprisonment as the near-exclusive solution to substance abuse, while giving short shrift to treatment and prevention.”  Breaking the law has its consequences, but treatment works and when used as a primary option will give countless peoples a chance at a living a healthy, happy and productive life.  Decriminalization does not imply drug legalization.

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