A final vote on a measure in the Tennessee Legislature that would legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp was put off for a day. Concerns were raised Monday by some House lawmakers over how the state’s regulation system would work, and sponsor Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said he’d seek clarification on the potential for criminal prosecution and penalties faced by those accused of growing hemp without a government permit.
Democrats Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Mike Turner of Old Hickory, the House minority leader and caucus chairman respectively, raised concern about a provision in the bill declaring that anyone found cultivating hemp without a permit from the state Department of Agriculture could face arrest for marijuana production.
“Shouldn’t we have an amendment that doesn’t so closely correlate hemp and marijuana?” said Fitzhugh. “During the discussion of this bill, there was a lot of separation between marijuana and hemp.”
Turner said the bill in its current form opens potential violators of the ag department’s permitting system to unwarranted criminal prosecution for marijuana — even if they are raising cannabis plants that are not a variety capable of producing an intoxicating effect when ingested.
“You’ve got some people in this state that don’t believe in big government telling them what to do, and they are probably growing it now, some of the religious groups and communities and things like that,” said Turner.
Faison responded that in order to keep law enforcement interests from opposing the legislation it was necessary to include strict regulation-compliance mandates. Earlier this session as the hemp-legalization effort was gaining momentum, Faison said getting the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to stay on the sidelines was his “biggest fight.“
“You have to understand that we are taking something that has been illegal for 80 years in Tennessee — and for law enforcement to even get to a place where they have been neutral, there have to be some concessions,” Faison said on the House floor Monday. “So we are taking something that we have looked at, and society has demonized for 80 years, and we are making it legal now. We want to make sure that we are not demonizing the wrong plant. So we’ve got to have some kind of barrier and standard to make sure the person who is growing it is growing the correct thing.”
Currently, all strains of cannabis are illegal under Tennessee law. House Bill 2445, which has already passed both the House and Senate in slightly different forms, directs state-government agriculture officials to develop a system for licensing and regulation to allow farmers to grow certified non-psychoactive cannabis crops for use as fiber, textiles and food.
Under amended bill language approved on a 29-0 vote in the Senate April 9, “No person shall grow industrial hemp in this state without first obtaining a license from the department. The department is authorized to inspect the hemp crop of any person who is licensed to grow industrial hemp to ensure that the licensee is in compliance with…any rules promulgated (by the department). Any industrial hemp crop that is grown without a license will be deemed to be marijuana under (existing state law).”
The version of the bill approved by the House on March 31 was worded differently, but it too contained language stating, “If a grower fails to obtain a license, the crop will be considered marijuana.” Both Turner and Fitzhugh voted for that language, which passed, 88-5.