Tennessee Snags War On Drugs/War On Women Twofer
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about a state bill that had landed on Tennessee governor Bill Haslam’s (R) desk to be either vetoed or signed into law. That bill was SB 1391 which made it a crime, specifically assault, to be a pregnant illegal drug user. Most states don’t prosecute drug users, only traffickers. That’s because the law sees drug use as a medical issue, rather than a criminal one. And oceans of data confirm that treatment has a far more beneficial effect, than incarceration, on drug addiction. But that’s all about to change, in Tennessee, for female addicts who become pregnant.
In a giant leap backward, Gov. Haslam signed SB 1391, a horribly ill-conceived piece of retrograde legislation, into law, and it will go into effect on July 1, 2014. According to his signing statement, Gov. Haslam judiciously considered copious amounts of expert opinion and signed SB 1391 into law anyway:
. . . after “extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials. 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.
It would be interesting to know who those experts were, exactly, because they certainly weren’t experts from . . .
The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other major medical associations — joined by local doctors and addiction specialists — [who] have warned that measures criminalizing pregnant women will only discourage them from seeking prenatal care and drug treatment. These concerns were made expressly clear to the governor by groups like SisterReach, a Tennessee-based reproductive justice group and Healthy & Free Tennessee, a state-wide reproductive health coalition.
“Despite our advocacy attempts and regardless of the impact this law will have on marginalized families; despite the danger that medical professionals have noted a law of this magnitude will cause, our governor chose his party over the experts,” SisterReach founder and CEO Cherisse A. Scott said in a statement. ”This law separates mothers from their children and is not patient-centered. Tennessee families who are already being hit the hardest by policies such as the failure to expand Medicaid, poverty and a lack of available drug treatment facilities will be most deeply impacted by this bill. Mothers struggling with drug addiction in Shelby County, rural communities throughout Tennessee and poor mothers and their families will be the ones who suffer the effects of this dangerous legislation the most.”
. . . must have been some other, better experts.
In fact, it was just the day before Haslam signed the bill into law that Michael Botticelli, acting head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy visited Tennessee and said this:
“Under the Obama administration, we’ve really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction. We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease.”
Along those lines, it’s also interesting that Gov. Haslam mentioned that the intent of the bill was:
. . . to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs.
One might reasonably ask “what treatment programs” the Governor is talking about because:
Only two of the state’s 177 addiction treatment facilities that provide on-site prenatal care allow older children to stay with their mothers while they are undergoing treatment. And only 19 of these facilities offer any addiction care specifically oriented toward pregnant women. Tennessee has also refused the Medicaid expansion, leaving many women without reliable access to basic medical or prenatal care, much less drug treatment.
Indeed that’s one of the reasons that Tennessee State Senator Mike Bell, one of the seven Republicans in the state Senate to vote against the measure, told a Salon reporter:
“I represent a rural district. There’s no treatment facility for these women there, and it would be a substantial drive for a woman caught in one of these situations to go to an approved treatment facility. Looking at the map of the state, there are several areas where this is going to be a problem.”
Ironically [or not], the law does nothing to remedy that situation, a fact that doesn’t deter State House sponsor Terri Lynn Weaver from believing that the new law is just the ticket:
“I don’t know what to say about [how] some [women] have insurance and some do not. It’s a terrible thing, but I don’t want to get into that because that’s another subject.”
Except that it’s not “another subject.” Tennessee, at number three in the nation for overall infant mortality, has a very real neonatal problem, but the General Assembly prefers to ignore that by refusing to expand Medicaid to increase access to prenatal care and chooses, instead to zero in on mothers using illicit drugs. And even with that objective, this law does nothing about nearly half of the problem that it purports to address.
41% of neonatal addiction syndrome cases are the result of pregnant womens’ abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs. But that’s OK because those women are not “the worst of the worst” as Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver likes to put it. Why would you want to put a three-martini suburban expectant mom behind bars? or a soccer mom addicted to Oxy, Percocet or Vicodin to get her through her busy, busy schedule? Fifteen years is a long time, eh? especially when you are a baby who’s going to grow up in foster care—if you’re lucky.
The greatest shame in all of this is that just two years ago, Tennessee barred the use of criminal charges against pregnant women for using drugs, encouraging drug-addicted women to enter treatment under the Safe Haven Act. Paradoxically, with the stroke of a pen and a giant leap backward, Tennessee has gone from a state with some of the best practices for drug-addicted mothers to one of the worst.
This is your government on ALEC, America. Like it?