Legislation decriminalizing medical marijuana in Tennessee could return to its original form, setting up a state commission to oversee use of the drug to treat debilitating illnesses. Any such move also could bring lobbyists back into the fold after they dropped support of the bill when its sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison, abruptly changed the bill and left onlookers flabbergasted.
The decriminalization form of Faison’s bill enabled him to push it further than medical marijuana has ever gone in the House of Representatives, in part because two committee members oppose creation of a state bureaucracy.
But Faison, an East Tennessee Republican, told Criminal Justice Committee members he could not guarantee the bill would remain the same and he would not bring it back if he did make a major amendment.
“In the Legislature, if something’s controversial, I call it a moving target. It’s always a moving target, and in each committee you have to adjust to hit that moving target,” Faison says. “But I’m a good shot, and I’m going to continue to adjust and float and have the latitude to move whatever direction I need to move to advance this bill.”
The measure is set to be heard April 3 by the House Health Committee, where Faison says he has the votes to pass it. The Senate version sponsored by Nashville Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson will go the same day to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican.
“I’m hoping the good people of Memphis will reach out to chairman Kelsey because he will probably be the deciding vote on whether or not this continues to move forward in Tennessee, and he’ll be the deciding factor whether or not we can get this very healthy botanical alternative option to FDA-approved drugs to help some sick Tennesseans,” Faison says.
Kelsey’s office says he is not commenting on the bill because he hasn’t made a decision.
Under the form approved 9-2 Wednesday by the House Criminal Justice Committee, Tennesseans could not be arrested for possession of some forms of medical marijuana, such as pills and lozenges, as long as they hold a doctor’s permission. The plant form would not be allowed, and they would have to travel to another state where medical marijuana is legal to receive physician approval.
Faison introduced that change the previous week, setting off shock waves over the legislation, which had been lobbied heavily from both sides.
A few days later, the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Trade Association announced it was withdrawing support for the measure but encouraged supporters of medical cannabis to remain engaged.
The original legislation would have provided safe access to regulated medical cannabis oil-based manufactured products only for patients with certain health conditions, says Glenn Anderson, association executive director says. Those range from HIV to cancer, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis.
“After careful consideration, the association can no longer support the legislation because a structured, transparent and accountable regulatory framework is critical to providing safe patient access to medical cannabis,” Anderson said in a statement.
Once Faison removed all language setting up a “safe, transparent and accountable business and regulatory model critical to providing safe patient access to lab-tested, pharmaceutical medical cannabis,” Anderson says he can no longer back it.
“The TMCTA is deeply disappointed this opportunity to build a projected billion-dollar industry in Tennessee that would meet the medical needs of tens of thousands of Tennesseans will be missed,” Anderson adds.
Two-thirds of the nation has access to medical cannabis, Anderson points out. Tennessee, on the other hand, will lose out on an industry projected to generate $20 billion in six years and continue forcing people to go to the black market to obtain marijuana for medical conditions.
Asked if the association would renew its support for the legislation if Faison amends it again to renew a state commission to oversee the growing, manufacturing, prescription and dispensing, TMCTA spokesman David Smith says new language would have to be reviewed before he could comment.
But, he points out, 80 percent of Tennesseans support medical cannabis, and the discussion has moved further than ever with “broad recognition that medical cannabis will come to Tennessee.”
“The TMCTA will remain engaged on this issue because a structured, transparent and accountable regulatory framework is critical to providing safe patient access. While Rep. Faison’s bill provides for the medical use of cannabis, it does not provide for medical cannabis, putting patients at greater risk, and it doesn’t provide for legal access of medical cannabis at all,” Smith said.
Nevertheless, lobbyists are expected to convene Monday to decide a course of action on the measure in case Faison revives the commission version of the bill.
David Hairston, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, is among those not dropping support, and he said he felt the Criminal Justice Committee vote “made progress for patients.”
“I had hoped to have full supply-chain operations in our state. But I am just delighted that Rep. Faison was able to get such a significant majority of the representatives on this committee,” Hairston said.
He wasn’t certain of Faison’s motivation in amending the legislation but said with 80 percent of Tennesseans supporting legalization of medical marijuana he couldn’t imagine more lawmakers seeking a more comprehensive measure.
Likelihood for change
Meanwhile, Rep. Sherry Jones, who for years has supported legalization of medical marijuana and sponsored her own measures, predicted changes will be made in the House Health Committee. She also felt any House bill that passed would go to a Conference Committee to reconcile any changes if the legislation makes it through the Senate.
“You can’t say, OK, you can have marijuana and you can do whatever you want to with it and there’s no sort of oversight to how it’s grown … you have to have oversight over this,” says Jones, a Nashville Democrat. “You can’t put a program out there without something that directs the program. So we’ve got to have that.
“I noticed that’s a problem for some of the members. But that’s crazy. What do they think’s going to run it?”
In its decriminalization form, the legislation received committee votes from Republican Reps. Micah Van Huss of East Tennessee and Michael Curcio of Dickson, both of whom said they want people to get access to medical marijuana but without setting up a massive state bureaucracy.
Their support could dry up if it makes it to the House floor with the creation of the commission.
“Cronyism,” Van Huss said when asked why he wouldn’t support it. “A commission that can pick who can transport it in the state, who can grow it, it has way too much potential for cronyism. Picking millionaires is not something I want nine people in the government doing.”
If the bill – in whatever form – makes it to the House floor, it will run into opposition from Rep. Andy Holt, a Dresden Republican who says this is another step toward trying to approve recreational marijuana in Tennessee.
“Whether (Faison’s) a willing participant in that process or whether he’s being used as a pawn in the process, that’s where it’s headed,” Holt said.
Holt predicted Faison will “contort” the bill any way necessary to ensure it passes.
“This isn’t about principle, this is about the politics of putting that bookmark in so that additional bites at the apple can be taken in subsequent years until we ultimately get to full recreational use,” he says.
During this week’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting, though, Faison said he will not vote for recreational use of marijuana if the matter ever comes to a vote.