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As Session Winds Down, House Judiciary Blocks Anti-Hair Discrimination, Medical Cannabis Proposals

Perry Bennett
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio

With just a handful of days before the end of the Legislature's regular  session, some West Virginia lawmakers in the minority party are making final efforts to push their priorities through. Some of those maneuvers came Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee.

Time is running out for proposed bills to receive the required three days of reading on the floor. Tuesday marked the Judiciary Committee’s final meeting of the 60-day legislative session. 

Efforts to get two measures added to committee’s agenda — one that would reform the state's medical canabis program and another that would prohibit discrimination based on hair type — were ultimately unsuccessful and most likely mean the measures won't make it across the finish line.

It was Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, who moved to add Senate Bill 850 — known as the “Crown Act” — and Senate Bill 752, which deals with the state’s medical cannabis program, as last-minute additions to the committee’s agenda.

Fluharty’s motion required suspending House rules. It also needed the support of a two-thirds majority of committee members to be adopted, which would allow for the bill to be considered and passed out of committee.

When a House version of the Crown Act failed to be taken up by committee, Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, created a version of the bill — Senate Bill 850. The measure aims prohibit discrimination based on hair type. The mother of a black student from Beckley testified to the committee that her son was denied participating on his school’s basketball team because of his dreadlocks. 

Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, stood in opposition.

“As I understand it — it's not before us — but would require employers to not have policies regarding hair, and how it's worn,” Fast said. “Basically [it’s] a hands-off approach and it would be enforced by litigation and employers then would be faced with this type of situation.”

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, argued that Fast mischaracterized the intent and effect of the Crown Act. He said the bill isn’t about employment issues but rather ending discrimination. 

“Some of the major employers, Fortune 500 companies in the state, support this bill that would prohibit racial discrimination because of hair,” Pushkin said. 

Del. Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, spoke in favor of the motion. Brown, who is one of four non-white state lawmakers in West Virginia, said the bill has had full support from Jill Upson, executive director for the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. 

Brown also stated that the bill is part of a larger national movement to end racial discrimination based on hair.

“This isn't just about employment. This is also about school athletics and any space that could potentially see implicit bias,” Brown said. “So we're doing this not only for employees but, children — and making sure that they're having the best space in order to survive and thrive in the state of West Virginia.”

Other Democrats argued it may be difficult for lawmakers who have never experienced discrimination to understand the need for the legislation.

“It's easy to sit around when you've never been the subject of this and think ‘What's the big deal? It's a hair bill, Crown Act, what’s it matter?’” Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said. “But if you're that young child who was treated differently and they are — like those that spoke across the hall there — it means a lot.”

Closing debate on his motion, Fluharty asked lawmakers to consider not only the length of the proposal, but also its scope in trying to protect the well being of all residents of the state.

“We have a duty and obligation, as legislators, to enforce our Constitution — to look out for the general welfare of all West Virginians — and this is a step forward to do that,” Fluharty said. “I commend Senate Judiciary for taking the act of originating the bill and sending it over to us with the expectation we would run it. And here we are with the opportunity to run it at the 11th hour. It's not a complex piece of legislation. It's literally half a page.”

Failing to get a two-thirds majority, the motion to add Senate Bill 850 to the committee’s agenda was rejected on a 8-14 vote. Three members — Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, and Del. Terry Waxman, R-Harrison -- were absent from the vote. 

Fluharty then moved to add Senate Bill 752 to the House Judiciary Committee’s agenda. The proposal seeks to expand aspects of the state’s stalled medical cannabis program — including a provision that would allow dry leaf or “flower” to be a form of the drug used by patients. The bill cleared the Senate last week on Crossover Day, surviving a key legislative deadline. 

Fast again spoke in opposition to the motion to add a bill to the committee’s agenda.

“There's been a lot of time — from beginning of session to now — to make such a motion. We have floor session in 45 minutes,” he said. “You know that we can talk about a bill — especially lengthy bills — for hours and hours. We did one the other day, took all day. To try to rush this through at the last minute is not prudent. It's not wise.”

Pushkin noted that the medical cannabis program was initially enacted by legislation in 2017, but that it has yet to get off the ground.

“It's still not up and running. I think we owe it to people,” Pushkin said. “If they wanted that sort of relief now they'd be treated like common criminals. Some of them are just going through chemotherapy, some of them have [Multiple Sclerosis]. I don't think they're criminals. I think we should stop treating them like criminals and give this a serious consideration that it deserves.”

Closing debate on his motion, Fluharty echoed Pushkin’s remarks.

“Here we are with advocates — who are present in this room, with investors who are present in this room and with patients outside this door and listening in statewide wondering why they can't receive the treatment they need three years later,” Fluharty said. 

In the end, the motion to add Senate Bill 752 to the agenda — needing a two-thirds majority — failed on a 9-13 vote. Kump, Steele and Waxman were absent from this vote as well. 

The legislative session is set to end on Saturday, March 7 at midnight.

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