Tennessee's district attorneys say that synthetic and prescription drug abuse will be the biggest challenges they face going into the new year.
District Attorney General Charles Crawford and 30 others recently met for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to identify what they termed "serious areas of concern" which must be addressed at the state level in 2012.
Topping the list are synthetic drugs such as K2 (synthetic marijuana) which reportedly have devastating mental and physical side effects.
"They are spreading across our state and have the potential to eclipse methamphetamine as the most dangerous drug in Tennessee," according to a statement from Crawford's office.
The drugs are often marketed in convenience stores as incense, bath salts or plant food, "and commonly feature cartoon characters on package labels," he explained.
Next year, the DAs said they would seek to increase penalties for those who sell and produce the synthetic drugs.
However, since the makers of the synthetics constantly make change to capitalize on existing legal "gray areas," they will also work to "make certain these substances remain illegal and out of reach of our youth."
Also proposed is greater access to the state's prescription drug monitoring database by law enforcement, more active monitoring of that database, and a requirement that physicians and pharmacists check the database when prescribing or filling any pain medications.
The D's say that while prescription drug abuse is not new to Tennessee, it can be addressed in a meaningful manner through common-sense steps that do not necessarily result in prison time.
"Our hope is that these steps will reduce theft and distribution of legitimately prescribed medications, the operation of pill mills, the practice of "doctor shopping" and prescription fraud," Crawford said.
Tennessee ranked second in the nation in 2009 for the overuse of prescription pain medications, with 17.3 retail prescriptions written per capita compared with a national average of 12.0.
Crawford also listed other issues that Tennessee's DAs are examining for the coming year.
l While convicted felons are currently prohibited from owning and carrying firearms, the DAs say that present penalties for failing to abide by this law are not in line with the potential violent outcomes it seeks to prevent.
The district attorneys would like to see jail time increased to at least one year from six months for armed felons with a prior nonviolent offense, and to at least two years for those with a prior violent offense.
l In cities across Tennessee, gang crime has become "a topic of importance," and Crawford said that he, along with other state DAs, believe they should begin "prosecuting gang crime in a meaningful way."
This could be done by automatically increasing sentencing to the next higher felony grade when offenses are committed by groups of three or more, as opposed to one on one.
"We cannot continue to allow robbery, home burglary and the infliction of serious bodily injury by groups of criminals to continue to be sentenced as though they were committed by an individual," Crawford said.
l Refining the laws dealing with impaired driving.
They wish to require greater use of alcohol-monitoring devices such as interlock ignitions for violators who request special considerations, often in the form of restricted driver's licenses.
"These are serious topics," Crawford stated. "However, citizens of Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall and Moore counties should know that I, along with the all of Tennessee's district attorneys, am firmly committed to making the New Year a safer and more just year for our entire state."