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Real forensics teams with lawmakers to stop designer drugs

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Last week the Alabama House and Senate passed legislation to ban synthetic drugs. House Bill 158 and its companion, Senate Bill 208 are often referred to as the “spice” bill. Although the Senate and House each has approved its own “spice” bill, one version will have to be approved by both the Senate and the House before its final approval is achieved.

When finally approved the state’s ban on synthetic drugs maybe the most effective such law in the U.S. The reason is not the work of nimble minded attorney but the analytical genius of the forensic scientists.

Lawmaker with the aid and expertise of the State of Alabama Department of Forensic Science have crafted a law that will enable law enforcement to combat these sometimes lethal drugs in a new and comprehensive way. Under the direction of the department’s director Michael Sparks and with the help of assistant director Angelo Della Manna the forensic lab was able to use science to beat the criminals at their own game.

According to Della Manna designer drug manufacturers make small changes in the “designer,” drugs chemical compound rendering the new laws outdated and unenforceable.

According to Della Manna, as soon as a state passes a law making one of these drugs illegal, the makers simply change the formula, making the new substance legal.

“From the time when we drafted the bill to the point that it passed the House we have already had two cases and identified two new drugs that we have seen in Alabama that we didn’t know about. Just between the time that we drafted the bill to now,”said Della Manna.

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Della Manna, explains how the manufacturers get around the law, “The analogy that we use in court is, you can have a Barbie doll, if you outlaw the Barbie doll with the summer clothes then somebody is just going to go and take those clothes off and put a different outfit on it and say it is a different Barbie but what you have got to do is outlaw the Barbies.”

As a result Della Manna says their department came up with a way to break this cycle by using the drugs analog. “This bill addresses those kind of synthetic compounds and the drugs that are used as well as any future tweaks to the drugs,” Della Manna explains.

Designer drugs have placed a unseen burden on law enforcement and legislators to enact laws that combat these deadly chemicals.

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House Bill 158 was introduced by Allen Farley (R-McCalla) and Randy Wood (R-Anniston) and and its companion, Senate Bill 208 was carried by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur).

“They have really got the youth marketed and they call them Spice or K2 or Blow Your Mind and all these other names,” said Della Manna. “They put them up on the counters. When you go into a convenience store they usually have the 5 hour energy drinks and all of those other kinds of knick-knacks on the counter.”

New synthetic marijuana product commonly known as K-2 or Spice Product are made in labs and not regulated – they are not all the same – and can be anywhere from 5 to 800 times more potent that THC from marijuana. Known in the scientific community as Synthetic cannabinoids. They function in much the same way as THC, the active principle in marijunana. The designer chemical like THC, binds to the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain and other organs. However, with these manmade drugs it has proven difficult to separate the so-called-desired properties from unwanted psychoactive effects. As a result, “fake pot,” has many side effects such as seizures, acute anxiety, panic, elevated blood pressure and even hallucinations.

The other designer drugs targeted in the bills are commonly referred to as, “Bath salts,” and are kind of “fake cocaine.” They are the comprised of the chemical mephedrone, MDPV, and methylone and marketed under such names as “Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave,” Vanilla Sky,” and “Bliss.” These substances are made by illegal street chemists and can be purchased in convenient stores, head shops and on the internet.

Della Manna explains, “In our bill, we not only address the synthetic cannabinoid, but also the bath salts, because they are doing the same kind of thing with bath salts. These drug dealers may go into Bed, Bath and Beyond and buy vanilla-flavored bath salts and then they lay out these crystals then take a Windex bottle and have the synthetic methanphemine or whatever the synthetic drug would be in liquid form and they spray it on crystal and it sucks up the drug. Then they sell them as ‘bath salts.’ People take them and smoke them.

Manufacturers synthetic marijuana and other similar substances were being created with chemical compounds which had not been identified and prohibited as controlled substances under state law and the minute a substance was outlawed the drug dealers would tweak the formula, so a new law had to be written. But with the new law, Alabama will be able to identify and render drugs illegal without rewriting the state’s laws.

Della Manna again explains the procedure, “If you have a Lego set and you build a structure that looks like a house–that’s the main structure. So that anybody that was grading your ability to build houses out of Legos would recognize and say, ‘Yep, that is a one-story house.’ That’s the main structure.

Now, by analog, what we mean is, let’s say that we outlawed the house that you made, let’s say you had two windows in the front and one garage. If somebody came and took the yellow shutter off of your window and put a red shutter on there–that’s an analog.”

Under the new law the House analog will enable the forensic lab to work in concert with the Department of Public Health to determine whether or not it would act on the same, “analog,” and whether or not it should be controlled.

Della Manna says, the good thing about the analog is it will address the compound and essentially drive the whole enterprise either out of the state or underground.

Alabama’s new law address the foundational problem with making these designer drugs illegal by combining science and law to fight crime.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Alabama Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth tests positive for COVID-19

Ainsworth is the only state constitutional officer in Alabama known to have contracted the coronavirus to this point in the public health crisis.

Brandon Moseley

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Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth speaks during a video message. (LT. GOV.'S OFFICE)

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth on Wednesday said that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

“After being notified this afternoon that a member of my Sunday school church group had acquired the coronavirus, I was tested out of an abundance of caution and received notice that the results proved positive,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “Because I follow social distancing rules and wear a mask both in church and in my daily interactions, the positive result shows that even those of us who are the most cautious can be at risk.”

“State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris has been informed about the results, and my office is taking the necessary steps,” Ainsworth said. “Though no symptoms have yet appeared, I will quarantine for the appropriate period and seek follow-up tests to ensure the virus has run its course before resuming public activities.”

“I appreciate the words of support that have already begun to be extended and am thankful for the prayers that are being offered for my recovery,” Ainsworth said.

To this point 174,528 Alabamians have tested positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, including 1,043 on Tuesday. At least 859 Alabamians were hospitalized on Tuesday with COVID-19, and 1,265,575 tests have been given across the state since March. Some 74,238 Alabamians have recovered from their illness, and 2,805 Alabamians have died from the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Ainsworth is the only state constitutional officer in Alabama known to have contracted the coronavirus to this point in the public health crisis.

The state remains under a “safer-at-home” order, including a mask mandate, through Nov. 8. That is likely to be extended into December given the recent uptake in coronavirus cases. Citizens are urged to continue social distancing, wear their masks, wash hands and avoid shaking hands and hugging.

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Health

Doug Jones applauds signing of veterans mental health and suicide prevention bill

The legislation is aimed at bolstering the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

President Donald Trump over the weekend signed into law legislation cosponsored by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, that aims to bolster mental healthcare for veterans and address veteran suicides. 

“Too many veterans – in Alabama and across the country – lack access to affordable, compassionate and effective mental health care. Through increased access to local and innovative treatment options, this new law will help veterans get the life-saving mental health services they may need,” Jones, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, introduced the landmark Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which would bolster the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans. 

The law also increases telehealth access for rural veterans, implements a pilot program to give veterans access to complementary care and establishes a grant program requiring the VA to better partner with agencies helping veterans to identify earlier those who are at risk of suicide. 

The law also strengthens how the VA will be held accountable for addressing veteran suicide, and it will allow the studying of the impact of living in high altitudes on veteran suicide risks and diagnostic biomarker research to identify depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other conditions.

More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, and of those, 14 have received no treatment or care from VA. 

“The social isolation and increased anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the issues our veterans face,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate leadership before it was approved and signed into law by the president. “Our nation’s veterans and their families are waiting on Congress to take action to deliver these desperately needed resources. We must act now to provide this vital assistance to Americans who have sacrificed so much for our country and who deserve the best our nation has to offer. As such, we are seeking immediate passage of S. 785 when the U.S. House of Representatives reconvenes in September.”

The law is named in honor of
Commander John Scott Hannon, a member of the Navy SEALs who served in the U.S. Navy for 23 years. Hannon was helping other veterans even while he was receiving mental health treatment himself. He died by suicide on Feb. 25, 2018.

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Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text to 838255. 

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Congressional candidate James Averhart endorsed by list of U.S. dignitaries, retired military leaders

The 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Congressional candidate James Averhart

James Averhart, the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District and a retired U.S. Marine, has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday.

“James Averhart is an integral leader — a man of principles and a patriot. He is the best choice to represent District One on The Hill,” said Ambassador Theodore Britton, a World War II Veteran who was nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General Walter E. Gaskin, who served as commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said Averhart is experienced in matters of government and policy and understands the lay of the land in Washington D.C.

“He will be ready to hit the ground running to get things done for the district, and moreover, be that bridge to unite the parties in Congress as well as the nation,” Gaskin said in a statement.

“James Averhart is a strong dynamic leader who will get the job done. He is meticulous and a consummate professional that will advocate and work for all citizens of our district and Alabama,” said Ambassador J. Gary Cooper, a retired Marine Corps major general who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.

“At a time when it seems that the Republican leadership is in lockstep with a president, who considers those in service to our great nation to be ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’ is antithetical to what this country needs. We have over 30,000 citizens hospitalized and over 211,000 deaths due to coronavirus, which could have been prevented with sound, methodical leadership. We have been disappointed by this President and the Republican leadership standing with him. It is time for substantive change in our Nation’s Capital,” Averhart said.

“The American citizenry deserves and expects more of its leadership. We should no longer settle for those who continue to promulgate untruths and spew divisive rhetoric. We deserve leadership who will extol the truth and hold in high regard a united nation,” Averhart said.

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Avergart’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election is Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.

The following are a list of Averhart’s endorsements, according to his campaign:

Ambassador Theodore Britton

  • Nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada
  • Served as the U.S. Special Representative to West Indian island nations of Antigua, Dominica, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia
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Ambassador J. Gary Cooper 

  • Vietnam Veteran and Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General
  • Nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.
  • Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as Asst Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

Lieutenant General Ronald L. Bailey

  • First African American to command the 1st • U.S. Marine Division
  • Served as Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Retired in 2017 following 41 years of service.

Lieutenant General Walter E. Gaskin

  • Served as Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC Served as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Quantico, Virginia
  • Served as Chief of Staff, Naval Striking and Support Forces-Southern Europe
  • Served as Deputy Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces-Europe in Naples, Italy

Major General Cornell A. Wilson, Jr.

  • Served as Director, Reserve Affairs Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs – Headquarters, U.S. MArine Corps, Quantico, Virginia.
  • Appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, NC, to the position of Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Lieutenant General Willie J. Williams

  • Served as Director of the Marine Corp Staff
  • Retired in 2013 after serving 39 years in the U.S. Marine Corp.

Brigadier General John R. Thomas

  • Served as Director for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Served as Director and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Marine Corp.

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Health

AARP’s COVID-19 dashboard shows Alabama nursing home lagging behind national averages

In each of five parameters Alabama fared worse than the national average.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recently-released dashboard shows that Alabama’s nursing homes, residents and staff alike, are suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s concern over what may happen in the coming days and weeks. 

“We know we’re moving into a very dangerous time right now, with flu season, and weather getting colder and people moving indoors,” said AARP Alabama spokeswoman Jamie Harding, speaking to APR on Monday. 

AARP partnered with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio in the creation of the dashboard, which in this first set uses data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to look at five parameters for the four-week period ended Sept. 20. 

In each of the five parameters — nursing home resident deaths per 100 residents, resident cases per 100 residents, staff cases per 100 residents, supply of personal protective equipment and staffing shortages — Alabama fared worse than the national average.

In the last month, there were 1.03 COVID-19 deaths among Alabama nursing home residents per 100 residents, tying with Mississippi as the second highest death rate in the nation, coming just behind South Carolina, which had the most, at 1.2 deaths per 100 residents, according to the AARP reports. 

As of Oct. 14, 45 percent of Alabama’s total COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic were among nursing home residents, totaling 1,088 resident deaths at the time, according to the dashboard. For the four weeks ending Sept. 20, nursing home residents made up 48 percent of the state’s deaths. 

Harding also noted that by the time CMS publishes the nursing home data “it’s about two to three weeks old” so the public isn’t getting up-to-date information on what’s happening in nursing homes, but she said at least the AARP’s dashboard will show trends in the data over time. 

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“We want the state, we want our leadership to take this data seriously, to see that we are not performing well on these five metrics, which are very critical metrics, and we want to know how this is going to be addressed,” Harding said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health has declined to release county-level or facility-level details on coronavirus in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, citing privacy concerns. 

“So that’s the problem, and Alabama has stubbornly refused to release daily reports, and remains one of just a handful of states still refusing to release the daily report, and we really have no good answer,” Harding said. 

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Harding also discussed a COVID-19 outbreak at the Attalla Health and Rehab, first reported by AL.com, in which the facility had to be evacuated due to a huge spike in cases there, peaking on July 10. Some residents were taken to a local hospital, while others were taken to Gadsden Health and Rehab and Trussville Health and Rehab, sparking an outbreak of COVID-19 at Trussville Health and Rehab. 

AL.com’s reporting noted that while at least 10 states have special strike teams ready to send staff and supplies to nursing homes experiencing an outbreak, Alabama does not. 

The new outlet quoted Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health as saying that the department doesn’t have the staffing to form such teams. 

“That is an indication that this was a problem they were never prepared for, and they should have been,” Harding said.  “They are the Department of Public Health. This is their work. This is their job.” 

Harding also said that as of at least the end of September, the Alabama Nursing Home Association hadn’t yet begun spending the $50 million in CARES Act funds, which Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Aug. 7 would be made available to reimburse state nursing homes via the hospital association’s Education Foundation for the cost of fighting against COVID-19. 

John Matson, ANHA’s spokesman, told ABC 33/40 reported on Sept. 28 that the funds were in a holding account and the first claims should be paid in early October. Matson said an accounting firm had been hired  to help handle the administration of the funds. 

Harding expressed concern that the federal aid wasn’t being spent to help protect state nursing homes quickly enough, and said that the Attalla nursing home outbreak was made worse by a staffing shortage as workers either became sick themselves or quit to protect themselves and their loved ones. Alabama nursing homes weren’t overstaffed before the pandemic, she said. 

“We would like to see some of that $50 million dollars spent to address staffing emergencies,” Harding said. 

Matson, in a response to APR on Monday, said that since mid-March, Alabama’s nursing homes have been in the center of a fight to defend the most vulnerable citizens of our state from the most insidious and infectious virus attack in the last century. 

“Every resource has been pushed to the extreme,” Matson said. “While critics have the luxury of creating dashboards generated from government databases, the caregivers of Alabama’s nursing homes have relentlessly fought day-by-day, risking their own health, to care for the residents who depend on us. Our people are heroes and our nursing homes have met an unprecedented challenge.” 

Matson said every dollar of the $50 million spent must be justified by documentation, every claim is to be audited by an independent auditing firm before reimbursements are approved and ANHA filed regular reports to the Alabama Department of Finance which are publicly viewable. 

ANHA’s report for September, filed Oct. 15, states that many facilities were just then become eligible to apply for some of those $50 million due to requirements that the facilities deduct from amounts claimed any other coronavirus aid the facility may have received from other sources, such as the “Medicaid COVID add-on of $20 per day per Medicaid patient, DHHS Provider Relief Funds; and SBA payroll Protection payment loans attributable to payroll, if any.” 

“Therefore, due to the application of these mitigants, many facilities are just now becoming eligible to apply for and receive funds,” the report reads. 

The September report also states that to guard against funds not being available “in the event of a second or later COVID-19 wave, the Foundation is holding back 25% of approved claims.” 

The report also says that 12 facilities as of Sept. 30 were approved for $6.5 million in claims, with $1.6 to be held back for possible future COVID-19 waves. As of Oct. 13, there were $10.4 million in pending claims filed by 65 facilities, according to the report, and there were $16.9 million on total claims paid or pending.

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