TN: Medical Marijuana Legislation Moves Ahead

Photo Credit: Erik Schelzig

Bolstered by House Speaker Beth Harwell’s tie-breaking vote, Rep. Jeremy Faison’s medical marijuana legislation took an important step Tuesday, Feb. 27, in the General Assembly.

Harwell, a Davidson County Republican running for governor, cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision to move the bill out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. It will be heard next by the full Criminal Justice Committee.

“This has nothing to do with de-stigmatizing marijuana,” said Faison, an East Tennessee Republican. “This has everything to do with helping some sick people who can greatly benefit from this plant.”

The support of Harwell, who signed on to the legislation as a co-prime sponsor, was crucial to its movement, Faison said.

Harwell said afterward she supports the bill and believes it deserves a hearing in a full committee.

“A wider discussion of this issue is warranted, and for that to happen, it needed to advance,” she said in a statement. “I appreciate the hard work Rep. Faison and others have put in to this legislation, which I think is a very thoughtful approach. It is a regulated approach that does not allow smoking, and I believe it can be helpful to countless Tennesseans.”

Rep. Sherry Jones, who has sponsored her own medical marijuana legislation, said it is not the “ideal” bill but said she voted for it to help people with debilitating illnesses “feel better” and become “more productive citizens.”

“There’s no study out there that has ever been done to say that medical marijuana was dangerous,” Jones said.

The Nashville Democrat said she will work with Faison to ensure the legislation isn’t structured so large marijuana manufacturers can benefit on the backs of ill people.

“One of the biggest things for me is that you have enough THC in the product to make it help people, that it’s Tennessee-grown for Tennesseans,” Jones said.

Rep. William Lamberth, who voted against the bill in the subcommittee, said he is concerned the bill will enable companies to profit off of Tennessee patients.

For instance, the legislation calls for the creation of a state commission charged with, among other things, deciding who will be able to grow marijuana for the medical products.

“They could create a monopoly very easily. In fact, this bill is structured in a way that they are incentivized to create a monopoly,” Lamberth said. “They can set whatever fees they want, they can add whatever type of substances later and even what type of illnesses. This bill is, again, about big government and about major corporations making money off of other people’s suffering.”

The bill would limit medical marijuana’s use to liquid or pill form, prohibiting smoking. It would set up a statewide commission to oversee the licensing of grow operations, prescriptions and dispensaries, and it would require local governments to hold referendums before it would be allowed. Patients would have to obtain a medical marijuana card from a prescribing physician.

Pros and cons

During the subcommittee meeting, state Department of Health officials told Lamberth several of the illnesses to be targeted for medical marijuana use would not be cured or eased, based on at least one key national study.

Dr. Michael Warren, deputy of commissioner for the Department of Health, raised concerns about marijuana use disorders, the potential for addiction and the lack of medical evidence it would ease the types of sicknesses and conditions named in the bill, from Lou Gehrig’s disease to post-traumatic stress syndrome to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

In fact, responding to questions from Lamberth, Warren said it could make schizophrenia patients worse and affect the brain development of children. Warren said even studies about cannabidiol, a derivative of marijuana or hemp, can cause drowsiness and affect people when they drive.

Jones urged Warren and the Health Department to “stop fighting” medical marijuana legislation and start trying to find a way to make it work. And when Warren said the department is trying to come to understand the drug, she said, “We’ve got to get you all some better understanding.”

Tennessee Sheriffs Association Executive Director Terry Ashe and Brentwood Police Chief Jeff Hughes told the committee their groups oppose legalization of medical marijuana because it would put Tennessee in conflict with federal law, especially since U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said recently he wants to toughen guidelines on federal regulation of state marijuana laws such as California’s recreational use. Five states allow recreational use, and some 30 states allow medical marijuana use.

Hughes pointed out the Federal Drug Administration still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, and said it remains “highly addictive.”

Said Ashe, “There’s not a sheriff in the state who doesn’t want children to get well.”

But he noted law enforcement officers are continually frustrated by the black market for any substance, and he pointed toward a bust in which officers seized 400 pounds of marijuana from Colorado, which now has legal recreational use.

Ashe raised questions about whether the legislation would help Tennessee farmers. “We know this is big money that’s got its hands on this,” Ashe said.

The former Wilson County sheriff also said he doesn’t “look good in orange” unless he wears it to a Tennessee football game, referring to the color inmate jumpsuits and the threat of federal interdiction.

Faison, however, said the legislation clearly spells out that Tennessee farmers would be able to start grow operations if they have the necessary assets and can pass a background check.

The legislation received key support from people such as Stacie Mathis, a Greene County woman who previously testified in favor of legislation allowing limited use of cannabis oil for children such as her daughter, Josie, who suffers from epilepsy.

In her toddler years, Josie would have hundreds of seizures and infantile spasms each day, but is making dramatic improvement by using cannabis oil with a THC level of 0.9 percent, Mathis told the committee.

After stopping numerous expensive prescriptions, Josie is out of her “zombie-like state,” and “no longer controlled by Big Pharma,” Mathis said.

Josie attends school “and grows stronger, smarter and sassier every day,” her mother said.

“I’m here because I know it works,” Mathis said of the cannabis oil her daughter uses. She pleaded with the subcommittee to stop making people “illegally heal” themselves by using medical marijuana brought in from out of state.

The Tennessee Medical Cannabis Trade Association pointed out Tennessee is in danger of being isolated in the region, as two-thirds of the nation already has medical cannabis and surrounding states are on the verge of adopting such laws.

“Today was a critical step forward in this important conversation to restore patient freedom with a conservative, medically responsible Tennessee-based solution,” said Glenn Anderson, executive director of the association.

Poll results show 83 percent of Tennesseans support legal use of marijuana for medical purposes, according to the association.