The Tennessee House and Senate have been busy in 2023 passing bills, many of which were signed by Governor Bill Lee. Some of these laws are aimed at addressing the continual problem of how to ensure that people who manufacture, sell, and distribute drugs are punished, and how to balance the need to help people who are abusing drugs while sending a message that possessing controlled substances is unwise and (often) illegal.

Today, we want to look at the ones that have been signed into law as well as those that are ready to go to the Governor’s desk.

An update to Tennessee’s Good Samaritan Law

Tennessee, like many states, has a Good Samaritan Law.  The purpose of the law is to encourage people to help anyone who is overdosing from drugs by shielding the person who provides emergency help, in the form of immunity from arrest and prosecution. The hope is that the immunity protection will help reduce the number of fatal overdoses to drugs such as opioids.

The law, when applicable, applies to people who may even be involved with the illegal possession or an exchange of drugs. The Good Samaritan Law also provides protection for the overdose victim – so the overdose victim will call for help instead of being afraid of being arrested.

According to the Tennessee General Assembly, the current Good Samaritan Law prohibits:

  • Someone who in good faith seeks medical help for a person who is having or believed to be having a drug overdose from being “arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation if the evidence for the arrest, charge, or prosecution of the drug violation resulted from seeking such medical assistance.”
  • The person who is having a drug overdose and who in good faith seeks medical help (or is the subject of a medical assistance request from another person) from being “arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation if the evidence for the arrest, charge, or prosecution of the drug violation resulted from seeking such medical assistance.”

The current law defines “seeking medical assistance” as:

  • Accessing or assisting in accessing medical assistance or the 911 system;
  • Contacting or assisting in contacting law enforcement or a poison control center; and/or
  • Providing care or contacts or assists in contacting any person or entity to provide care.

Under the current law, the immunity from criminal charges only applies to the person’s “first” drug overdose.

The amendment removes the first-time limitation, so that immunity will apply in all overdose situations, no matter how many times previously the person overdosed – at the discretion of the arresting offer or the District Attorney’s office. This amendment was passed by the Tennessee House and Senate.

The “Drug of the Living Dead” Act

This law took effect on July 1, 2023. According to WKRN, this law provides that it will be a Class A misdemeanor to “to knowingly possess xylazine and any salt, sulfate, isomer, homologue, analog or other preparation of xylazine.” Manufacturing or selling xylazine will be a Class C felony – which provides for a prison sentence of between 3 to 15 years.

Xylazine is also called “tranq” or “tranq dope.” The drug is an animal tranquilizer commonly used to sedate horses and cattle. Xylazine is not approved for use by humans. The drug has been detected, over the last three years, in many suspected overdose deaths in the Nashville region. The Metro Public Health Department states that the illegal use of xylazine is connected with severe skin wounds that may result in limb amputation. The drug is considered addictive.

The law provides exemptions for the possession, manufacture, delivery, or sale of xylazine for a “legitimate veterinary practice.” The law also exempts anyone who has a valid prescription from a licensed veterinarian.

Concerns about new fentanyl laws, here and across the country

In June 2023, the New York Times reported that three teenage girls in the parking lot of a high school in rural Tennessee were found slumped in their car – just hours before their graduation ceremonies. Two of the girls died from fentanyl overdoses. The third girl was hospitalized – and then charged with the deaths of the other two girls.

The girl was charged based on a Tennessee law that authorizes homicide charges if someone gives fentanyl to another person and the person who receives the fentanyl dies from using it. The prosecutor stated, “We have this law to punish drug dealers who poison and kill people… and we also want it to be a deterrent to those who continue to do these drugs.”

Many other states, like Tennessee, have increased the penalties for overdose deaths related to the use of fentanyl. In 2023, 46 states introduced hundreds of fentanyl crime bills. (In fact, Virginia codified fentanyl as a “weapon of terrorism.”) As of July 1, 2023, Tennessee’s One Pill Will Kill Act  makes it a Class-B felony to have, deliver, or produce .5 grams or more of fentanyl. The fines can be up to $100,000 and sentence up to 30 years in prison.

All in all, 30 states have a drug-induced homicide law that allows murder charges to be filed “even of people who share drugs socially that contain lethal fentanyl doses.”

There is some concern about whether the increased penalties are working. Jennifer Carroll, a medical anthropologist at North Carolina State University, stated “We are falling back on these really comfy, straightforward law-and-order solutions in spite of the fact that they didn’t work before, they’re not working now, and there’s growing evidence telling us they’re making things worse.”

All of these laws may interact with each other. For example, if you give someone fentanyl (but don’t sell it) and that person overdoses, can you be immune from a fentanyl charge if you call 911 to help the overdose victim? What if you have a prescription for fentanyl and someone else takes it without your knowledge? Can you still face charges? (We assume yes.) Since 2021, parents could face charges of “severe child abuse” if their children are able to access a controlled substance – including fentanyl. Questions like these need to be addressed and answered soon.

At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, we know there are two sides to every story. Our Sevierville-based criminal defense lawyers handle the full range of drug offenses including possession, manufacture, sale, and distribution of controlled substances. We assert the broad range of defenses that apply to the charges filed against you including arguing the laws when they are in your favor, such as the Good Samaritan law, contesting the admissibility of drug evidence, and asserting your Constitutional rights.

If you’ve been arrested for any type of drug offense, call us or fill out our contact form to schedule a free consultation. We are skilled criminal defense lawyers who represent defendants in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and the surrounding Tennessee areas.