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VOL. 42 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 16, 2018

Black draws flak for lobbying against medical marijuana bill

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Medical marijuana legislation sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Faison is hitting a hurdle with gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Diane Black opposing it and her husband trying to kill the measure.

Faison, an East Tennessee Republican, confirmed lobbyists employed by The Phoenix Sciences Group, founded and run by David Black, are lobbying against his medical marijuana bill this session.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are questioning such a move by someone seeking the governor’s office, especially with medical marijuana gaining momentum statewide. A 2017 Vanderbilt poll found 44 percent of Tennesseans back the legalization of medical marijuana. An additional 34 percent favor making it legal for medical and recreational use.

Faison is perhaps the most puzzled, running into a new opponent while trying to garner support from state senators who are stonewalling his bill.

“It’s very confusing to me why a gubernatorial candidate would engage in lobbying against a bill when 80 percent of Tennessee’s for it and two-thirds of Americans have access to it already,” said Faison, of Cosby in the Smoky Mountains. “What do you stand to gain by killing this bill and keeping sick Tennesseans form having access to it?”

Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat whose own medical marijuana legislation has gained no traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, made it clear she believes the Blacks are wrong on several fronts, including transparency.

“Diane Black and her husband David are working against the cannabis bill because he has a testing lab,” she says. “They want to be sure that they get to test marijuana, that they get to test opiates, so they don’t want opiates to go away because they won’t be testing that, and then they want to be doing the marijuana testing for anybody who gets picked up for it.

“I feel like that is absolutely wrong. It was wrong when they got the testing contracts, the governmental testing contracts, and it’s wrong for them to be involved in it now.”

Aegis Science Corporation received a contract worth more than $1 million over five years from the state starting in 2004 to perform drug testing for the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. The contract started with four years and was extended for another year.

Diane Black is believed to be one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with a personal net worth around $150 million, according to reports. The Center for Responsive Politics put Black’s net worth at $77.7 million in 2014.

She has made no secret about her disdain for medical marijuana while on the campaign trail, calling it a gateway drug. At the same time, her husband tabbed lobbyists to block Faison’s legislation this session, Faison says.

The state’s Ethics Commission website shows he is chief executive officer of Phoenix Sciences Group in Nashville and hires and supervises four lobbyists from Adams and Reese LLP. In late 2016, Black left Aegis Sciences Corporation, the toxicology and health sciences laboratory he and Diane started in 1990, reports show.

Black’s campaign did not respond to email messages and questions, but her husband responded to questions saying Phoenix Sciences Group doesn’t operate a drug-testing lab nor does it plan to bid on or be eligible for any state contracts.

“Our interest in this legislation is based only on the public interest and not on any economic concern,” Black said by email. “I engaged a registered lobbyist comply with state regulations as we express our constitutionally-protected and scientifically-based opinions on proposed legislation.”

Black explained his doctorate degree is in legal medicine, and after eight years of doctoral research on the toxicology and pathology of cannabis sativa, or marijuana, he is considered an expert on subject in scientific journals and in court testimony.

“The harm of cannabis is well-established,” he said.

Black noted medical marijuana is available as a pharmaceutical if a physician determines it can help a patient, but no medical society has endorsed marijuana beyond two FDA-approved drugs.

He also contends legalization of marijuana in any context would cause drug testing to increase, since 99 percent of drug testing covers legally prescribed drugs.

“It is foolish to assert that legalization would harm a drug-testing company,” Black said. “Quite the contrary. Since greater availability of marijuana will create greater harm the need for testing will significantly grow.”

Faison, nevertheless, wonders if Congressman Black opposes his medical marijuana legislation so she can hold a view counter to that of House Speaker Beth Harwell, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, who supports Faison’s legislation. Harwell began to back alternatives to opioid pain medication last summer when her sister suffered a serious injury.

Faison wonders if Congressman Black opposes his medical marijuana legislation so she can hold a view counter to that of House Speaker Beth Harwell, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, who supports Faison’s legislation. Harwell began to back alternatives to opioid pain medication last summer when her sister suffered a serious injury.

Sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican and anesthesiologist, the bill would create a statewide commission to oversee the growing, manufacturing and dispensing of medical marijuana products. Prescriptions would have to be written by physicians for people suffering from a number of debilitating illnesses, ranging from cancer to HIV and AIDS, severe arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and severe chronic pain and nausea.

Allowable products would be oils and extracts in capsules, pills, transdermal patches, ointments, lotions, lozenges and liquids. Smoking marijuana would not be allowed, according to Faison.

Faison also questions whether David Black would continue to lobby legislators if his wife wins the governor’s race this year. The primary is set for August and the general election is schedule for November.

Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said there is nothing in state law his office enforces that would stop a candidate’s spouse from lobbying.

Asked about the situation, Harwell said, “I publicly stated where I am on the bill, and you know … we welcome input from everyone, including from citizens.”

She declined to speculate whether the Blacks could benefit financially from the bill’s failure.

Yet, it isn’t typical for the spouse of a gubernatorial candidate to try to block legislation, according to legislators.

“I think it’s safe to say that if the congressman has said she would veto (medical marijuana legislation), and it’s something that Tennesseans want, then I think it does create a problem,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

Williams ran into problems when lobbyists worked to stop a medical marijuana bill he sponsored two years ago. Williams pushed the measure after watching his father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran, struggle terribly with pain pills while suffering the ravages of cancer.

“If the representatives of the Tennessee General Assembly determine that it’s something that the citizens want, and according to the polls it does, then if she’s elected governor she’d have to answer to the citizens,” Williams said.

Williams could not say whether he thought Black’s husband should be involved in lobbying against the Faison bill if his company is involved in the drug-testing industry.

“It’s not a good idea in practice,” he said. “There’s not a law saying you can’t.”

The Aegis contract was the focal point of a protracted legal battle between David Black’s former company, Aegis, and Lou Ann Zelenik, an opponent of Congressman Black in the 2010 6th District congressional race.

Zelenik ran a TV ad accusing Black of voting to give the state contract to Aegis while she served in the Tennessee Senate. The ad depicted former Sen. Black handing a $1 million check to a person identified as Dr. Black and payable to Aegis Corp.

It included a statement that: “Black’s spending spree included a million bucks for a drug testing company; the company’s owner, Diane Black’s husband. Diane Black, big spending that hurt every Tennessee family except hers.”

Aegis filed a defamation lawsuit against Zelenik claiming the ad was false, and though some slight changes were made in the advertisement, Zelenik refused to make a retraction. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed in a state appeals court ruling, but Zelenik has since filed a suit claiming malice and willful intent, according to reports.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.