Police help push new laws through legislature
The Waynesville Police Department helped craft and then usher four bills, or some version of them, through the N.C. General Assembly this year, giving law enforcement officers statewide new tools in the fight against drugs.
For a small mountain police department, it was impressive to play such a prominent role in shepherding statewide drug-fighting legislation into law — not to mention four different bills.
“We are extremely pleased,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.
The four bills tackle different problems that law enforcement agencies have grappled with, including the sale and use of synthetic drugs, delays in getting results of toxicology tests, and troubles combating prescription drug abuse.
For Hollingsed, he regularly witnessed the shortcomings in existing laws that sometimes handcuffed his officers from being as effective as they could in fighting drugs. Why not do something about it, he thought.
The police department found a willing partner to carry the bills to Raleigh for them, namely Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. The Waynesville Police Department gathered notebooks full of information to present to Davis in addition to wording for the bills to illustrate why each piece of legislation was important.
“A legislator doesn’t know there is a problem until someone tells you there is a problem,” Davis said, adding that the new laws will help both law enforcement and residents. “Everything that we can do to make their jobs more effective and easier and make our citizens safer is a good thing.”
The Haywood County District Attorney’s Office, the legislature’s legal department and agents with the State Bureau of Investigation also helped in the process.
One of the laws made the manufacture, sale, possession and use of synthetic marijuana illegal.
Hollingsed has repeatedly spoken about the negative effects of synthetic marijuana, plants that have been sprayed with unknown chemicals and psychotropic drugs. Side effects of the drugs include hallucinations, seizures, vomiting, elevated blood pressure, increased anxiety and violent behavior.
The bill drafted locally took cues from a law in Tennessee that prohibits all forms of synthetic drugs, even future forms. However, the bill was deemed too broad and a similar, yet more narrowly focused, piece of legislation, H.B. 813, was pushed through.
Prior to the bill’s passage, there were no limits on who could buy and who could sell the synthetic drugs, even young children. Now, synthetic drugs in all its current forms are illegal.
“We are happy that we’ve got a law in place now,” Hollingsed said.
The Waynesville Police Department has already arrested at least one person for possession of synthetic marijuana since the bill.
However, the new law still leaves wiggle room for manufacturers to create different chemical combinations, which would be legal unless the specific blend of ingredients is outlawed by the state.
“If new combinations come up, we will just have to deal with them,” Hollingsed said.
Undoubtedly, the greatest problem law enforcement agencies face today is the illegal sell and abuse of prescription drugs. The sale of prescription narcotics has risen 600 percent in the last decade, said Donnie Varnell, supervisor of the State Bureau of Investigation’s diversion agents. Prescription drug overdose has become a leading cause of accidental deaths in the state.
“They are deadly,” Varnell said. “Prescription drugs are bought and sold on the street just like cocaine and heroin.”
However, state laws did not treat the sell of prescription pills as seriously as those drugs, particularly when it came medical personnel’s role.
To help remedy the problem, Waynesville police drafted S.B. 252, which makes it a felony for employees in the health care profession to knowingly sell drugs or give out unnecessary prescriptions. The maximum sentence is 42 months in prison.
For example, a doctor or nurse could give a patient aspirin, claiming its percocet or hydrocodone. Meanwhile, they pocket the stronger pain pills to sell.
“It is cruel that they are not getting the pain medication they need,” Hollingsed said.
Previously, the offense carried a minor sentence and sometimes offenders got out of any penalty at all.
“It’s a little bit more of a deterrent,” Varnell said.
A harsher sentence also gives law enforcement some leverage when interviewing an alleged criminal. It can be a bargaining chip if officers are trying to get information.
The new law is a step in the right direction, but eventually, Varnell said, he would like to see further ramifications for people who illegally possess, misuse and/or sell prescription drugs.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to eliminate prescription drug abuse altogether.
“In the end, we would like not to have a job,” Varnell said. “It takes partnerships with everyone to combat the prescription drug problem.”
In addition to medical personnel who abuse their access controlled substances, there are also individuals — both dealers and addicts — who travel from physician to physician to obtain prescriptions. Using a tactic, known a doctor shopping, people look for medical practitioner they can easily get a prescription for narcotics from. The person will often visit multiple doctors so that no one physician gets suspicious.
In some cases, organized rings will send out people to obtain the prescriptions, which can then be sold for thousands on the street.
“We are almost being overwhelmed by very large scale, well-organized prescription drug rings,” Varnell said.
To help identify prescription drug dealers and abusers, a new state law will give police access to the state’s Controlled Substance Reporting System, a database that tracks whenever certain prescription drugs are prescribed and whom they are given to. With that information, law enforcement officials can identify doctors who are giving out large numbers of prescriptions or people who are seeking pills from multiple sources.
The law, which is the combination of three bills, including the locally drafted S.B. 253, gives police chiefs and/or designated officers on the force limited use of the database —bringing the state up to speed with the rest of the U.S.
“We were the only state in the country who did not allow law enforcement access,” Hollingsed said.
Only trained officers will have permission to view the database, and they will have to keep a detailed log of when and why the Controlled Substance Reporting System is accessed.
Faster testing results
Whenever a crime occurs in Haywood County, police can send blood samples or other evidence to the nearby hospital for testing. However, when a motorist was arrested for driving under the influence, state law required law enforcement to send the blood or urine sample to the state crime lab, though no one seems to know why.
“We could not get an answer from anyone in Raleigh why that was in the DWI (statute),” Hollingsed said.
Forcing the samples to go through the state crime lab delayed results, which sometimes caused DWI cases to be dismissed. Without the results, the district attorney could not prosecute the case.
In addition, the technician who ran the sample had to drive all the way from the eastern part of the state to Western North Carolina to testify, creating an inconvenience for the crime lab.
But under passed S.B. 285, law enforcement agencies will no longer have to ship off evidence in DWI cases. Along with evidence from other crimes, blood or urine samples from alleged intoxicated drivers will be tested at nearby hospitals.
“(The hospitals in the state) were certainly more than qualified to do blood and urine testing,” Davis said. “Doing blood and urine alcohol testing is not particularly difficult.”