By LACIE PIERSON
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With the end of the regular legislative session for the 83rd West Virginia Legislature less than 72 hours away, make-or-break time has come and gone for hundreds of bills.
The majority of members of the GOP-led Senate and House of Delegates approved their budgets in their respective chambers during long sessions Wednesday, and Thursday served as a cooling-off period of sorts as legislators worked to hammer out the details on some priority bills.
Among those bills completing or nearing final passage are those that make stiffer penalties for drug trafficking and that provide more substance abuse prevention in public schools.
Drug prevention education starting in kindergarten
The Senate approved House Bill 2195, which would require county school districts to implement drug awareness and prevention programs for grades kindergarten through 12 at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
The bill was approved by a 32-0 margin, and it will advance to Gov. Jim Justice for his consideration. Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, was the lead sponsor of the bill, and he sponsored similar legislation in 2015 and 2016.
“I think this bill has become more and more important as our substance abuse problems worsen,” Rohrbach said. “We’ve taken care of harm reduction. We’ve done a lot of law enforcement bills to help with this problem. We’ve also worked on treatment, but the fourth part of the problem is prevention. This is the part my bill is really trying to target, to teach our children starting in kindergarten that there is a better option. I’d like to say we didn’t need this program to start in kindergarten, but unfortunately, we do.”
The bill also was co-sponsored in the House by Cabell Dels. Kelli Sobonya and Sean Hornbuckle and Wayne Dels. Ken Hicks and Robert Thompson.
The aim of the program would be to keep students from illegally using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs through education and other school- and community-sponsored activities.
The language of the bill calls for active involvement of staff, students and parents in developing the program.
There also is a measure in the bill to “facilitate an understanding and appreciation” about the risks, duties and likely actions by law enforcement officers when conducting drug investigations.” It also requires the programs to teach students how to respond to police officers during traffic stops and what kind of behaviors would result in them being detained or arrested.
At the high school level, the programs would have to include at least 60 minutes of instruction about the dangers of opioid use and safer alternatives to treat pain.
Harsher penalties for drug trafficking
The Senate passed a bill that would establish more jail time for those convicted of drug trafficking in West Virginia.
If signed into law, House Bill 2579 would establish a recommended sentence of between 10 and 30 years of jail time for anyone convicted of transporting with the intent to deliver or manufacture Schedule I and Schedule II narcotics into the state. The law would not affect the financial penalty, which would remain at $25,000.
The Senate approved the measure in a 32-0 vote. Senators amended the bill to add another criminal charge based on the quantity of certain drugs a person is convicted of trafficking. Members of the House will decide whether they agree with those changes before the bill can advance to Justice.
If someone is convicted of the same crime involving Schedule I, II or III non-narcotics, such as LSD or ecstasy, as defined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, they would face between five and 15 years in jail and a $15,000 fine.
The law would make an exception for those crimes when marijuana is involved.
A person convicted of transporting marijuana, which the DEA classifies as a Schedule I narcotic, would face between one and five years in jail and up to $15,000 in fines.
In the crime added by the Senate, those convicted of trafficking certain amounts of certain drugs will face between two and 30 years in prison. Those quantities are a kilogram or more of heroin, five or more kilograms of cocaine, 100 grams or more of PCP, 10 grams or more of LSD and 50 grams or more of meth.
All of the quantity-based charges are felony crimes, and lower penalties are associated with lower quantities of those drugs.
Drugs with a high rate of addiction but no medical usefulness, like heroin, meth and LSD, are Schedule I drugs. Drugs with a lower risk of addiction with high medical usefulness, like cough syrup with less than 200 milligrams of codeine and Lyrica, are Schedule V drugs, according to DEA.gov.
Celebrate Freedom Week
The Senate voted Thursday to create a Celebrate Freedom Week for students in grades nine through 12, during which teachers in the state would teach students “about the sacrifices made for freedom in the founding of this country and the values on which this country was founded,” according to the language of the bill.
The bill was approved in the Senate by a margin of 33-0.
Senators amended the bill from the version originally approved in the House on March 29. The Senate removed the minimum amount of time teachers would have to focus on their freedom week lessons, so the bill will return to the House of Delegates, where delegates will have to approve the Senate’s changes to the bill before it can advance to the governor for his consideration.
Celebrate Freedom Week would take place the week of Sept. 11 each year, and teachers at every grade level would be mandated to teach lessons of in-depth studies of the “intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with an emphasis on the Bill of Rights” using the historical, political and social environments surrounding each document at the time it was passed or ratified.
If signed into law, Celebrate Freedom Week would be applicable to all public, private, parochial and denominational schools in the state.
Starting with the 2018-19 school year, ninth- to 12th-grade students will be administered a test that is similar to the civics portion of the naturalization test used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The results of the test would be made available to the county boards of education and school district officials, but the test results otherwise wouldn’t be useful to measure whether students are achieving state-mandated standards or subject to other state accountability measures.
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