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Up in Smoke

Prospects for marijuana reform were dissipated by legislative action last week.

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Despite heady optimism early in the current session of the General Assembly, proponents of significant reform legislation regarding marijuana were well advised not to hold their breath.

Bills regarding the possible legalization of medical marijuana have been bottled up for now; the major one was pulled last week by its sponsor, East Tennessee Republican state Representative Jeremy Faison, who realized that, while prospects for House passage were fair, his bill was sure to be killed in the state Senate's Judiciary Committee, chaired by Germantown Republican Senator Brian Kelsey, an arch-foe of marijuana reform.

To keep alive the long-range prospects for medical marijuana, Faison prevailed upon the speakers of the two legislative chambers and Governor Bill Haslam to consent to the creation of a task force on the subject. Faison and other backers of legalized medical marijuana are hoping that the task force, which will meet over the summer, will help create support for legislation in the 2017-18 session.

Circumstances are murkier on another marijuana-related matter. The state Senate this week put its imprimatur on a House bill restricting the rights of local governments to pass ordinances that would reduce the penalties for possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana. The city councils of Nashville and Memphis had passed ordinances allowing law enforcement officers the discretion to write tickets calling for modest fines as an alternative to imposing existing misdemeanor penalties involving jail time. When state Attorney General Herbert Slatery offered a non-binding opinion in November that state law prohibited such local deviation, Mayor Jim Strickland put a hold on the Memphis ordinance, but Nashville metro government continued to allow the issuance of citations to offenders.

In House debate last week on the bill brought by Republican House member William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) to prohibit local marijuana-possession variations, Democratic state Representative Mike Stewart of Nashville moved to seek a waiver for Nashville, attesting that the citation alternative had proved "very popular" in his city and that there had been no problems in implementing what citizens of all stripes regarded as a "great step forward." The courts, whose decisions would be final, should be allowed to rule on the matter, he said.

That brought some harrumphing from Lamberth, who invoked the principle that "everyone should be treated the same" under law and chastised his colleague for suggesting that police officers should be allowed "to discriminate on the basis of their whim." Further, said Lamberth, the issue at root was "not one of constitutionality but of morals." Stewart's motion for a Nashville exemption was tabled as the Lamberth bill went on to easy approval, 65 to 28. It was basically a party-line vote, though a sprinkling of Republicans, including Faison and House Speaker Beth Harwell (a Nashvillian), voted no.

The issue returned in the Senate on Monday, when Lamberth's bill, co-sponsored by GOP Senator Jack Johnson of Franklin, came up for a Senate vote. Democrats Lee Harris and Sara Kyle of Memphis objected, as did Senator Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.

Harris pointed out that allowing local leeway on possession of small amounts of marijuana was one means of addressing woeful inequities of incarceration policy, while Yarbro called the roll on case after case in which local municipalities across the state were allowed to prescribe a variety of penalties that varied from those prescribed by state law. Why, he asked, "single out one particular area of criminal code for this [uniform] treatment?"

"My perspective is this," added Kyle, "Local government means local control," with an obligation to bring "government as close as we can to the citizens." All of this rhetoric was to no avail. The Lamberth/Johnson measure passed on a strict party-line basis, 26-5.

Two more bills, one legalizing medical marijuana and another decriminalizing possession of an ounce for recreational purposes, both sponsored by Nashville state Representative Sherry Jones, a Democrat, were in the House Criminal Justice subcommittee this week. Prospects for passage were not great.

UPDATE: Rep. Jones postponed action on her medical marijuana bill for a week and pulled her decriminalization measure off the calendar.


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