New legislation regarding illegal drug use during pregnancy that Governor Bill Haslam signed into law in April will take effect on July 1. This legislation “provides that a woman may be prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug” SB1391/HB1295 The new law allows for new mothers to be criminally prosecuted for causing her child to be born addicted to or harmed by her illegal drug use during pregnancy.
The law provides an affirmative defense to prosecution for those expectant mothers who use illegal drugs to avoid criminal charges by entering one of the state's treatment programs before the child is born, remain in the program after delivery, and successfully complete the program. In addition, this new law has a termination provision, which means the law will only remain in effect until June 30, 2016. After June 30, 2016, the law will need to be revisited by lawmakers.
Opponents believe the new law will deter pregnant women who struggle with drug use/dependency from seeking prenatal care. Supporters of the new legislation believe the health and safety of the child should be the foremost focus. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 921 babies were reported to be born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (drug dependency) in 2013. As of May 3, 2014, there were 308 cases of NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome) reported in Tennessee.
Although much opposition surrounded the new legislation, Governor Haslam stated, “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.”
This new law creates a few interesting questions such as, but not limited to, whether pregnant women who use illegal drugs will choose not to obtain prenatal care or who will pay for the baby while the mother is incarcerated or will the threat of criminal prosecution deter illegal drug abuse among pregnant women.
As Tennessee lawmakers try to deal with increasing illegal drug use and fraudulent prescription drug usage among Tennesseans, in particular expectant mothers, we will see the effects of this new law on our criminal justice system starting July 1. If you know someone who has been criminally charged due to this new law, it is important she counsel with an experienced criminal defense attorney at the Clarke Law Firm to protect her legal rights.