Two Republican state lawmakers who are also medical doctors are drafting a bill aimed at curbing illegal production and distribution of opioids.
Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Mufreesboro, said Monday that they are working on a measure to combat the state's ongoing opioid epidemic by increasing the penalties for illegal production and distribution.
Although they did not provide much detail on the legislation, which is still being drafted, Dickerson and Terry said their efforts come after reports that opioids like fentanyl, sufentanil and carfentanil, which are widely available in Tennessee, are being used to on the street to lace heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
"The budgetary funding proposal brought forth by President Trump and Congress, as well as the Opioid Task Force created by Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell has raised awareness of the severity of opioid abuse and the health risks associated with these drugs for our residents,” Terry said. “As Chairman of the Health Subcommittee and the only member of the House who has extensively used these medicines in treating patients, I am looking at ways to help address this growing epidemic."
Both Terry and Dickerson are anesthesiologists who have administered the drugs in their own medical practices and noted their value in appropriate medical situations.
But the legislators said opioids like fentanyl and sufentanil are also being spread illegally can be deadly in unregulated doses.
Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and sufentanil and carfentanil respectively are 1,000 and 10,000 times more potent.
Dickerson and Terry cited reports of the drugs being used to lace heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, which can increase the risk of addiction, death and babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), according to the release.
They also cited a Tennessee drug bust that resulted in the confiscation of over 100,000 pills containing fentanyl.
Dickerson said the measure, which will likely be introduced during the next legislative, will give law enforcement and the judiciary more tells the tools to deal with illegal opioids.
"Often times chemists are changing the chemical makeup of these drugs, even by a single atom, to stay ahead of law enforcement and to keep synthetic drugs off lists of controlled substances," he said. "Our goal is to not only address the illegal distribution of fentanyl but also the various synthetic versions of the drug while also leaving room for it's proper uses."
Terry said he and Dickerson will likely consider what other states are doing to address the problem and that they will also offer their perspectives as doctors familiar with the drugs to other lawmakers.
A growing problem
As lawmakers have tightened the reigns on legal opioid prescriptions and cracked down on illegal operations, more opioid users have moved on to heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to find on the street.
The Tennessee Incident-Based Reporting System shows a significant uptick in heroin-related arrests over a five-year period.
Reporter Joel Ebert contributed to this report.