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With all the focus and coverage on education reform there has been far too little discussion regarding Senate Bill 61 which would expand the scope and power of the secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. Senate Bill 61 seeks to grant the secretary of DHH the authority to classify substances as “controlled dangerous substances” after considering certain criteria. Once a substance is declared to be dangerous the secretary of DHH would have additional powers to issue a dangerous substance stop order prohibiting the sale, distribution, manufacture, or dispensing of the dangerous substance. This stop order would also enable law enforcement to seize any products which are in plain view and contain the dangerous substance.
While this bill is intended to address the recent growth in products which are considered alternatives to marijuana and other substances which mimic the effects of amphetamines, such as cocaine, it goes too far in terms of delegating legislative authority to a department head of the executive branch. The authority to make laws belongs, as per our state constitution, solely with the state legislature, an elected body.
Some would say that the state legislature does not meet frequently enough to address situations which may arise where an imminent hazard to the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state of Louisiana has developed. However, the state constitution provides mechanisms for the convening of either an extraordinary or an emergency session should we the people demand a more immediate response to an imminent hazard.
There are a number of arguments which could be made against this bill. You could argue that despite the numerous laws that have been enacted to address illicit drug use that drug abuse among the population has remained relatively constant. You could make the argument that no matter how many substances the secretary of DHH deems to be “dangerous”, individuals who seek some artificial high will inevitably find a new substance which will produce their desired chemically altered state of mind. You could make the constitutional argument (as mentioned above) that the power to make laws should remain with the state legislature, an elected body; not with an appointed official. However, I believe the most compelling argument against this bill speaks to our representative form of government. As citizens we have access to our elected officials and our elected officials have a duty to listen to our points of view. If this bill becomes law the secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals would have the authority to create rules which carry the force of law. As citizens, our relationship with appointed officials, such as the secretary of DHH, is very different than with our state representatives and senators. He/she is not required to listen to, nor act on, our concerns. Additionally, as citizens, we have no course of action to remove, or vote out, the secretary. In effect we as citizens would lose our voice on these matters in the future.
For example, at the federal level the congress has slowly delegated much of its authority to the executive branch through the creation of the various departments. We in Louisiana and the entire gulf coast have recently experienced the harmful implications from the abdication, or handing over, of authority by congress to the Department of the Interior. When the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar imposed a six month moratorium on offshore drilling the congress was powerless, and so were we. We held a huge rally and packed the Cajundome to let our voices be heard. However, our collective pleas fell on deaf ears. Why? Because our federal representatives have in the past delegated much of their legislative authority to the Department of Interior, The Department of Labor (OSHA), The Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) etc. We must learn from our previous mistakes and not allow the same problems to occur in our state government.
Kristian Magar, Ph.D.