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VOL. 11 | NO. 14 | Saturday, April 7, 2018

Memphis Lawmakers Helped Advance Medical Marijuana Bill in House

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Three Shelby County lawmakers played key roles in helping a medical marijuana bill move through the Legislature, supporting its passage in the House Criminal Justice Committee before the bill was pulled Tuesday, April 3, by its Senate sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville.

A medical marijuana decriminalization bill backed by several state representatives from Memphis is dead for this session. (Shutterstock)

Democratic state Reps. Raumesh Akbari and Antonio Parkinson of Memphis and Republican Rep. Jim Coley of Bartlett had voted in favor of legislation that would have decriminalized possession of medical marijuana in the form of capsules, patches, ointments, lotions and oils to treat about 15 debilitating diseases such as AIDS, cancer and even arthritis. 

Under the decriminalization measure, people would have had to obtain a doctor’s permission from a state where medical marijuana is legal and obtain it elsewhere as well. The bill no longer called for a state commission to oversee the growing, processing, dispensing and transport of medical marijuana, after the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison, abruptly amended the measure March 21.

Akbari expressed her disappointment after the measure was pulled Tuesday, saying study groups and the bill’s sponsors had worked hard on the legislation and she hated to see it go down without a proper hearing in the Senate. 

"I thought there was more momentum in both chambers, so I'm mystified," she said, adding she hopes it can be studied more and brought back again in another version in 2019.

PATIENTS’ STORIES

Akbari, Parkinson and Coley were among the House members who approved the measure in a 9-2 committee vote, despite warnings from state law enforcement officials the decriminalization of medical cannabis would make the state’s roads more dangerous.

“If we can save one person, that’s what we need to do,” Akbari said during the committee session, speaking in response to the testimony of Lawrenceburg resident Andrea Houser, who told lawmakers she used marijuana to stop epileptic seizures she suffered for years.

Houser explained her seizures dissipated for five years when she used cannabis but returned when she decided to stop because the drug use was illegal.

Nevertheless, she told the committee, “I would rather illegally live than be legally dead,” adding she doesn’t want her children to be traumatized anymore by the sight of her biting her tongue and choking on blood.

Parkinson echoed Akbari’s comments, saying the fact people are willing to engage in illegal activity to treat their illnesses “speaks to the desperation these individuals are facing when they’ll roll the dice to live in some comfort.”

Parkinson also said he wouldn’t care what law enforcement officials said if he needed to obtain illegal cannabis to treat his 13-year-old daughter for illness.

Coley, meanwhile, indicated his support when he asked officials from the Tennessee Department of Health about conflicting medical studies on the benefits of medical cannabis in contrast to anecdotal evidence supporting it. Health Department officials said Tennessee shouldn’t give up on the federal system for approving drugs.

“A friend of mine wanted me to vote for this bill because her grandchild has seizures,” Coley said.

The committee heard earlier from Logan Mathes, the East Tennessee father of Josie Mathes, a 4-year-old girl who suffered daily from hundreds of seizures until the Legislature passed a law two years ago enabling her to obtain cannabidiol with low levels of THC for treatment. She now suffers 30 to 100 seizures a day, but the family supports a move allowing her to take a stronger dose.

“It’s kind of like you live in hell,” Mathes said, describing what it’s like to have a child who suffers constantly from seizures. Josie previously took a combination of narcotics that left her lifeless and cost the state some $120,000 because the family was on TennCare.

The father, who works as a sheriff’s deputy, said he supports the bill even though he deals with people who violate marijuana laws. He noted people will find a way to get cannabis for medical treatment, “and we need a way to protect them.”

LEGAL RAMIFICATIONS

The law enforcement community objected to the measure, contending it will put Tennessee at odds with federal law, which sets marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and make driving more dangerous.

District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn of the 4th District in East Tennessee told committee members he deals almost daily with people who lose loved ones to deadly wrecks caused by impaired drivers. They come to his office, he said, and ask, “Why did you let them drive?”

Some of those wrecks stem from a combination of legal drugs, but he cited one case in which a motorist had THC in the blood, “the exact thing you’re trying make legal,” he said.

Dunn said lawmakers could “dress it up” and call it medical cannabis instead of marijuana. But even though 80 percent of Tennesseans might want to legalize medical use of the drug, he predicted lawmakers would be coming back next year to provide treatment for people addicted to marijuana, he added.

“Never forget the compromise of today is the capitulation of yesterday,” he said.

Akbari responded by saying nothing in the legislation permits people to drive while impaired and noted state law already prohibits driving while under the influence of a number of medical substances.

“We are not looking at recreation use,” Akbari said. “We are looking strictly at medicinal use.”

The Tennessee Sheriffs Association also testified the bill would put it at odds with federal law, under which medical marijuana is illegal. Nearly 30 states have legalized medical marijuana, and six allow recreational marijuana.

Terry Ashe, executive director of the organization, said he was concerned with the legislation transforming from a 71-page bill with state control to a four-page bill with no oversight allowed. He said out-of-state doctors’ orders for medical marijuana could be forged and troopers wouldn’t know how much might qualify for a month’s supply, the amount the legislation would allow.

“It’s a little problematic for us to try to practice medicine on the side of the road,” Ashe said.

Parkinson, though, pointed out, “The (Federal Drug Administration) is not the answer to everything, and in this culture in the Legislature, the federal government is not the answer to anything.”

Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott told lawmakers the decriminalization of medical marijuana would make jobs tougher for his troopers, who already are arresting more people for DUI and, as a result, cutting the number of deadly crashes caused by impairment.

“The big marijuana lobby has a 25- to 30-year strategy,” Trott said, first obtaining approval for cannabidiol, then medical marijuana and, ultimately, recreational marijuana.

Trott, though, said, “The bottom line is loosening restrictions on marijuana products will more danger on our highways.”

Out of some 2,100 blood samples taken on impaired driving in the latest count, 29 percent had THC in them, according to Trott. Law enforcement officials contend people drink or use other drugs, then smoke marijuana, too, causing them to become even more impaired.

Nevertheless, the committee’s vote came down, in part, to medical needs of people who want to avoid addictive pain killers and, for a couple of the lawmakers, removal of a state commission and approval process for growing and manufacturing the drugs.

During the committee session, Faison had told members he would not bring the bill back to them if he made major changes in it, and afterward he said legislation making its way through the General Assembly often changes to meet the needs of committees and the full body.

“This is something I’ve been watering and cultivating now for four years. I’m hoping one day we get to harvest right here in Tennessee,” Faison told them.

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

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