Marijuana ‘Decriminalization’ Push Set for First Full Committee Hearing

Nashville Democrat Harold Love wants to eliminate the possibility of jail time for people caught by police possessing a small amount of marijuana.

But that’s tantamount to “legalization” in the eyes of House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman William Lamberth.

Love’s House Bill 873, a measure to decriminalize the possession and “casual exchange” of up to an ounce of cannabis, passed out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on a voice vote last week. It’s up for a full Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Despite having a fiscal note indicating it would save the state $1.26 million from incarceration costs, Lamberth, a Cottontown Republican, expressed objections in the subcommittee hearing. The former prosecutor took issue with the fact that the legislation “legalizes, in all circumstances, marijuana.”

“It makes it a fine-only offense,” Lamberth said. He described that as de facto legalization because under current law possession of marijuana is “an actual crime.”

Love agreed to adjust his legislation to be more to Lamberth’s liking, and changed the charge for being caught with marijuana to a Class A misdemeanor, without the qualification that the punishment be a fine only.  A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by jail-time of up to 11 months and 29 days and a possible fine of $2,500.

Lamberth said when it gets to full committee there may be some opposition, or more changes to come, but he also commended Love on his work. “I am probably going to record myself as a ‘no’ today, but I am not fighting this bill, you’ve worked very hard on it,” he said.

Love told TNReport that while he had to put some extra teeth into the bill to get it out of subcommittee, “most judges will probably go ahead and reduce that to just a fine that they’ll implement on somebody.”

Love said he’s ultimately satisfied with the adjustments to his legislation because the most important part remained intact: getting “felonies off people’s records, and to reduce the prison pipeline.”

Its companion — Senate Bill 1211 — has not yet been put on notice in the upper chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

Gov. Bill Haslam told TNReport Monday that while his administration is currently “wrestling with” what their position is on a couple of GOP-sponsored medical cannabis measures, he is “not in favor”of Love’s decriminalization bill.

“I think our folks — both our health professionals and our law enforcement professionals — do not feel like that would be a helpful step,” said the governor.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.