VOL. 132 | NO. 218 | Thursday, November 2, 2017
View From the Hill
Medical Marijuana Might Finally Get Past Objections
By Sam Stockard
Medical marijuana legislation is evolving, not to ease people’s debilitating pain but to help it pass the General Assembly, where it’s giving some lawmakers heartburn.
State Rep. Jeremy Faison, an East Tennessee Republican ferrying the bill through the House, is offering several changes to a bill he is sponsoring with Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican, to soothe the nerves of state bureaucrats and lawmakers who get shaky when the word marijuana is mentioned.
“This plant for 90 years has been looked at as a bad thing,” says Faison, who hails from “God’s country” in Cosby in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Faison is holding hearings and gathering pro and con information in meetings of the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Task Force at the Legislature this summer and fall. His goal is to educate fellow legislators about the medical value of cannabis and pass legislation enabling people to use it for everything from epilepsy to cancer, possibly weaning them away from pain killers destroying their lives.
In response to concerns raised by the Department of Health and Department of Safety and Homeland Security, as well as by Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville and Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, both medical doctors, none of whom felt the state should be involved in permits, Faison is proposing a cannabis commission to set the rules and approve licenses for growing operations, manufacturers and dispensers.
The voting board would be made up of doctors, pharmacists, law enforcement officials and patient advocates appointed by the governor and House and Senate speakers.
To take the fun out of medical weed and to keep people from burning it in the streets (well, not really), Faison is suggesting only oil-based products, patches and creams be allowed.
“That would immediately eliminate a lot of concerns,” he explains.
In fact, all criminal laws dealing with the raw form of cannabis would remain the same, Faison points out.
The legislation would be permissive, as well, enabling each county in the state to decide whether it wants to allow farms for growing marijuana, according to Faison. This would let the Legislature off the hook.
In addition, the state could use cards with “real-time tracking,” overseen by the cannabis commission, through which doctors would write prescriptions allowing patients to have a certain amount of medical marijuana.
Law enforcement would be able to put the cards into a computer and see how much medical marijuana a person is allowed to have. If they’re allowed 30 milligrams and they have 100 milligrams, they’re busted.
“I want the people who are sick who could greatly benefit from this plant to get it, even if they have to jump some hurdles,” Faison adds.
Faison tells the story of a Korean War veteran he met at a recent ceremony who told him he made a secret compartment to sneak medical marijuana into Tennessee for his granddaughter to use against a terrible illness. Every two months, his wife and daughter fly to another state and bring back the oil in that hiding place, Faison relates.
“He wants to be able to come out from under the shadow of illegal activity to get cannabis oil,” Faison continues.
Faison previously passed legislation allowing cannabis oil with less than 0.3 percent THC, the agent that produces the marijuana buzz. But for some people, that’s not enough to dull the pain of cancer or other illnesses and injuries.
HELPING HER SON
Medical marijuana advocate Jennifer Doty helps her 18-year-old son “medicate” every night, five years after he was struck while walking on a train track. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and still has seizures and anxiety, explains Doty, who testified recently before Faison’s task force.
Doty spent months in the hospital with her son when he was first injured and has built her life around trying to make his life more bearable. They have cannabis oils, but smoking gives him “more immediate” relief, she says, and she doesn’t want him taking opiates or any other highly addictive drugs.
Doty has won a Mother of the Year award from the Tennessee Justice Center, yet in May she was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor when an officer in their town saw her buying him pot.
The district attorney general decided not to press charges, she says. Still, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services opened a case against her.
“I am listed under a category of women who had meth labs in their homes,” she tells the task force.
Considering what she’s been through, “To add this kind of stressor on top is like having someone stab you in the back,” she adds.
Another medical marijuana advocate, Allison Watson of Crossville, founder of House of Hope for children with meth in their homes and a former child and family attorney, considers marijuana in its natural form, one of the safest substances in the world.
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s “hands are tied,” she notes, and even though polls show overwhelming support for medical marijuana, the Federal Drug Administration still doesn’t give it legal recognition.
More medical articles are published about marijuana than Adderall, the drug used to treat attention deficit disorder, she says. It continues to be prescribed, though, while marijuana remains prohibited by the federal government.
Meanwhile, half the states in the country allow medical marijuana, and a handful approve of recreational use of marijuana. None of those states have repealed their marijuana laws, either, she adds.
“The feds have just created a Catch-22 nightmare,” she points out, adding, “Patients in Tennessee simply do not have time to wait on the feds to sort out this contradictory and hypocritical situation.”
Watson got into a little running debate with Sen. Briggs during the recent hearing after she said something to the effect of people under the influence of marijuana might weave when they drive but they aren’t nearly as dangerous as those who drink and drive. In other words, pot is low on the scale for causing car crashes, except when alcohol becomes part of the equation.
She also argued it is “egregious” to put mothers of epileptics and cancer patients in jail for breaking marijuana laws.
“I’m glad people are moving slower when they’re weaving,” Briggs responded to Watson’s presentation.
Clearly, he is skeptical of medical marijuana and notes Colorado, which allows recreational use, jumped from No. 14 in the nation to No. 1 for youth use of marijuana.
Briggs also points out the Knox County jail has 1,200 prisoners, none of whom are mothers of epileptics or cancer patients. In addition, he contends the number of Colorado deaths for people with marijuana in their system increased to 125 from 55 after recreational use laws passed.
Reacting to ordinances passed last year by Metro Nashville and Memphis city councils, the House endorsed a measure this year enabling the state to pre-empt municipal efforts to control drugs.
Both Nashville and Memphis passed ordinances in 2016 giving police officers discretion to write civil citations for possession of small amounts of pot, as opposed to arresting people on misdemeanor charges. Memphis put its ordinance on hold after the state attorney general opined both moves are unconstitutional.
Yet, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, of Nashville, after hearing Briggs’ argument, says this type of “prosecutorial discretion” raises questions about whether Tennessee has the “right structure of laws in place.”
As Watson points out, Tennessee had more than 7,000 marijuana arrests in 2015 alone, and failed drug tests are one of the biggest reasons in the state for probation violations.
Let’s face it, people are firing up and willing to go to jail for it. The industry apparently is lucrative too.
In Murfreesboro, earlier this year, a spate of shootings led to at least two deaths in a small war over the marijuana market.
BACK TO THE POINT
Faison, who is one of the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers but is making this his main goal, continually reminds people he’s not trying to allow Tennesseans to get high legally.
He’s against smoking weed, but at the questioning of Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, he acknowledges Tennessee is one of the nation’s biggest marijuana producers.
“For better or worse, we’re in the top five for growing and selling,” he recounts.
Akbari points out, “So this would give us the opportunity to regulate and tax an industry that’s already here.”
No doubt, people are waiting for legislative approval to get their grow permits.
The question is: When will Tennessee – and the federal government – join the majority of the country and start allowing medical marijuana.
At a time when pain killers are killing people as much as they’re killing pain, and even President Donald Trump is acknowledging the danger, it’s time for Tennessee lawmakers to start listening to Faison and stop worrying about losing votes at church.
It’s probably not the panacea some make it out to be, but marijuana isn’t nearly as dangerous as the poppy or alcohol. And, Faison says, his bill wouldn’t affect businesses that test for drug usage. If they want to fire someone for testing positive, that would remain up to them.
And, not to make light of the situation, but look at it this way: Junk-food sales will sky-rocket, which is good for the economy, though not so good for the mid-section.
But, hell, we’re already one of the unhealthiest states in the country. A few more Twinkies won’t kill anyone.
I can hear Faison now saying, “It’s not about getting high!”
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Hamilton Herald and Knoxville Ledger. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.