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VOL. 132 | NO. 73 | Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Parkinson’s Pot Bill Falls Short by Handful of Votes

By Sam Stockard

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Legislation by Rep. Antonio Parkinson designed to cut felony charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana didn’t exactly light up the House Monday evening. 


It fell 44-45-5 and was sent back to the Calendar and Rules Committee after some House members questioned the amount of marijuana the bill would allow people to carry – up to an ounce – without getting a harsher charge than a misdemeanor. The bill did not receive the 50 votes required for passage or the 50 in opposition to kill it and could be renewed with a two-thirds vote.

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, explained the bill is designed to strip away the automatic “intent to distribute if there’s no evidence of it.”

A person caught with an ounce or less still could be charged with a misdemeanor under the legislation. But some lawmakers pointed out that an ounce of pot is quite a bit of weed.

Rep. Pat Marsh, a Shelbyville Republican, noted an ounce of marijuana is equivalent to 28 grams, with one gram equaling anywhere from one to six “cigarettes.”

“In my opinion, if you have that many bags you’re probably a dealer,” Marsh said.

Parkinson explained people with up to an ounce could be charged with a felony if there are signs they’re dealing, such as bagged pot, scales and a wad of money.

Rep. Courtney Rogers, a Goodlettsville Republican, in raising questions about the bill, put on her “drug dealer shoes” and strutted at her desk, telling House members, if she were selling pot she would have her customers bring their own baggies.

“I’m concerned there are a lot of workarounds on this,” Rogers said.                

Yet another opponent, Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar, a Springfield Republican, asked Parkinson why he didn’t push the maximum allowable amount to two ounces.

Parkinson explained that two ounces “seemed a bit excessive” and that his goal is to stop sending marijuana smokers to prison with felony convictions. The bill did not address the level of THC that might be in marijuana, the intoxicating chemical in pot.

After the vote, Parkinson accepted blame for the bill’s failure to pass, saying he could have given a better explanation by noting the measure would save Tennessee $800,000 in prison expenses, in addition to stopping people from being charged with felony distribution charges when there’s no evidence they’re selling marijuana.

Parkinson said he should have explained that pot smokers are “clogging up prison space when we could have the rapists, the murderers, the killers in that space versus someone that is caught with a small amount of marijuana.”

“I could have said more and I should have said more. I do also understand that less is more sometimes when you’re up here presenting some of these bills. We just had to roll the dice and see where it came out,” he said.

Parole Board meetings required

The House voted 96-0 to approve legislation by Parkinson requiring the Board of Probation and Parole to meet and consider the release of a person from prison whose parole is revoked under a probation violation based largely on false accusations.

The board would have to meet within 45 days in cases where a person’s parole is “erroneously” revoked, he said.

Parkinson sponsored the measure in response to the imprisonment of Nashvillian Robert E. Polk, whose parole was revoked because his wife accused him of threatening her with a gun, according to reports. The woman later recanted, and charges against Polk were dropped, but the board took two years to reinstate his parole, according to reports.

Kindergarten suspensions to be studied

The state Department of Education will study the suspensions of pre-kindergartners and kindergartners across Tennessee under legislation passed by Rep. Raumesh Akbari Monday night. The House voted 90-4 in favor of the bill.

Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she sponsored the measure after finding out 1,000 kindergarten students were being suspended from school in a single year, about 1 percent of the population.

The state will review how local education associations are handling punishment for those young children and compile a report, which could be done by 2018.

“I want that number to be zero,” Akbari has said.

Initially, her legislation would have prohibited suspension and expulsion of kindergartners unless they posed the threat of violence at schools. She ran into opposition from school representatives who didn’t want to be limited in the type of punishment they could mete out if students continued to disrupt class. 

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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