Legislative Update: House committee postpones vote on medical marijuana, sentencing reform

Zach Vance • Updated Mar 14, 2018 at 7:04 PM

The House Criminal Justice Committee postponed action Wednesday on two prominent bills carried by East Tennessee lawmakers, one that would legalize medical marijuana and the other would reform prison sentencing for felons.

Cosby Rep. Jeremy Faison requested his medical marijuana bill be “rolled” to next week while he crafts an amendment that was requested by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“Basically, the TBI told me there is nothing in the bill I’m trying to pass that would preclude a person with a drug felony from owning a grow (operation) or a dispensary, and that’s not my intent at all,” Faison said. “I felt like it was a viable enough problem that I needed to put an amendment on it, and the way the Criminal Justice (Committee) works, you can’t file an amendment the day of the hearing.”

Faison’s bill would not permit recreational use or even the smoking of the raw marijuana plant. Only people diagnosed with a “debilitating medical condition” would be eligible to use marijuana in liquid, pill or oil forms.

Some lawmakers sitting on the Criminal Justice Committee have already voiced their concerns about the bill, including Jonesborough Rep. Micah Van Huss and Chairman Rep. William Lamberth.

Both have criticized the 70-plus page bill for creating a “big government” commission that issues registration cards to patients, decides who can grow marijuana and what additional diseases marijuana can be used to treat, among other duties.

Both Van Huss and Lamberth cast votes against the bill in subcommittee last month, but House Speaker Beth Harwell’s tie-breaking vote kept the bill moving to the full committee.

Shortly after the committee vote, Van Huss said he is happy to support cannabinoid oils for seizure patients, as he did in 2015, and will continue to support oil-based marijuana for medical purposes.

“Unfortunately, that was only two pages out of a 70-page bill. The other 70 pages set up a big government bureaucracy choosing who can and cannot grow marijuana in this state. Because of that big government bureaucracy and its potential for cronyism, I could not support the bill,” Van Huss said.

Moving forward, Faison is confident his bill will survive next week’s committee hearing.

“We're going to pass it out of committee next week. Then it will head to the Health (Committee), and I think we've got the votes there, as well,” Faison said.

Sen. Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, is carrying Faison’s companion bill, but it has yet to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sentencing Reform

Noting its $37 million cost, the Criminal Justice Committee also rolled a sentencing reform bill to the last calendar meeting of this session, likely so committee members could wait to see how the bill fares in the Senate first.

Sponsored by Kingsport Rep. Bud Hulsey and Bristol Sen. Jon Lundberg, HB1514 would prevent inmates convicted of violent crimes against people from using sentence reduction credits until they reach the “minimum release eligibility date applicable to the inmate.”

“This is a very important issue, and I hope the Senate gets their heart right on it,” Lamberth said about Hulsey’s bill.

The bill was initially written to apply to all inmates convicted of a crime, but the fiscal note predicted it would cost the state $112 million, so Hulsey amended the bill to apply only to inmates convicted of Class A, B and C felonies.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen told the Johnson City Press Tuesday that losing the ability to get inmates out of jail sooner will put the crowded Washington County Detention Center in “crisis mode.”

Laitinen said there were 690 inmates in the detention center, including 154 state inmates and 230 pre-trial inmates charged with felonies. The certified capacity for the detention center is 566 in the main jail and 54 in the workhouse, which is where inmates assigned to outside work crews are housed.

Lundberg’s bill has been assigned to the General Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has yet to be scheduled a hearing date.

Denouncing white nationalism

A House Joint Resolution that would have denounced white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as domestic terrorist organizations failed to get a second motion during a House State Government Subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

HJR 0583, sponsored by Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, got a first motion from the only Democrat on the committee, Rep. Darren Jernigan, R-Old Hickory, but couldn’t muster a second motion from any of the four Republican committee members, including Hulsey.

Without a second motion, the resolution’s fate was doomed before it could even reach a vote.

"I'm in utter disbelief at what just happened," Clemmons told the Tennessean following the meeting. "I didn't think there was anything controversial about this resolution." 

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