Drug czar slams criminalizing moms as Haslam mulls veto

The Tennessean, April 28, 2014, by Tony Gonzalez

Drug Czar

The top White House drug policy czar said Monday in Nashville that he couldn’t comment on the decision Gov. Bill Haslam must make today about whether to sign legislation that would criminalize women who use drugs while pregnant. Then he let fly. “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,” said Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease.”Botticelli spent the afternoon at Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital, touring the neonatal intensive-care unit and talking candidly for almost an hour with a room full of doctors, nurses and administrators about the epidemic of babies born drug-dependent.Botticelli learned that Tennessee last year counted 921 cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome — a painful type of drug withdrawal that infants can experience when born to drug-addicted mothers. Forty-one percent of those were using legal drugs prescribed by doctors.

He praised the state’s approach to studying the epidemic, collecting data and reducing the rate at which Tennessee doctors prescribe painkillers that contribute to the problem, as well as Vanderbilt’s research and treatment advances.

“Quite honestly, when you talk about what are the forward-leaning states and places that are doing (neonatal abstinence syndrome), you always hear Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee,” he said.

What Botticelli wouldn’t comment on — specifically, anyway — is a competing idea about what to do with drug-using mothers that gained traction in Tennessee this year. Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature would allow prosecutors to charge women with assault if they believe they can prove that prenatal drug use harmed the newborns.

The governor, through a spokeswoman, promised a statement today — his deadline to act.

The proposal has garnered national attention and vocal state and nationwide opposition from constitutional and reproductive rights groups. More than 10,500 people signed a petition asking for the governor’s veto.

Opponents worry criminalization will scare women away from the kind of treatment that Botticelli praised Monday, and reverse last year’s state Safe Harbor Act. That law protected the custody rights of mothers and gave them priority placement into the state’s limited treatment programs.

“What’s important is that we create environments where we’re really diminishing the stigma and the barriers, particularly for pregnant women, who often have a lot of shame and guilt about their substance abuse disorders,” Botticelli said. “We know that it’s usually a much more effective treatment and less costly to our taxpayers if we make sure that we’re treating folks.”

Last year, Vanderbilt treated 52 babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome in its intensive care unit, out of 1,300 infants admitted there.

Pediatrician Stephen Patrick introduced Botticelli to one mother struggling with drug addiction during the tour and said that’s key to getting a firsthand understanding.

“My hope is that will continue to inform policy, that you can take what’s relevant to us — that we see clinically at the patient bedside — to federal and state policy,” Patrick said.

Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 or on Twitter @tgonzalez.

Law enforcement group opposes bill

The national Law Enforcement Against Prohibition group announced Monday its opposition to Tennessee’s proposal to criminalize women who use drugs while pregnant.

The group of about 5,000 law enforcement officials opposes the war on drugs and said treating drug use as a crime instead of a public health problem “wastes public safety resources and endangers the health of those affected.”

The group said Tennessee’s proposal would deter women from seeking treatment and could stop them from dealing honestly with doctors.