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Front Page - Friday, December 16, 2016

View from the Hill: Faison’s folly? Pushing pot as a conservative

By just about any measure, state Rep. Jeremy Faison is a hard-core conservative. But when it comes to the cannabis plant, the East Tennessee legislator is ready to fire up the General Assembly with a move to liberalize the state’s pot law.

After passing bills for industrial cannabis and cannabis oil in recent years, the Cosby Republican from the Great Smoky Mountains area is joining state Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican and anesthesiologist, to sponsor legislation allowing medical marijuana in Tennessee.

They were to hold a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol.

With those already on his legislative resume, taking the next step to try to harness the medicinal uses of marijuana is not surprising for Faison. Even though he rates high in the Republican-controlled conservative ranks of the Legislature as pro-gun and pro-life, he’s willing to take a political hit to erase what he considers the taboo against marijuana.

You’re not talking about someone who gets up in the morning and lights up a joint, either.

A Georgia native, Faison attended Clearwater Christian College and Northland Baptist Bible College and is a worship leader at Crossroads Community Church. He plays guitar in a Christian band.

“I’ve seen the truth, and I can’t go back now,” he says.

Faison started looking into the cannabis plant about four years ago, from hemp to marijuana, and was “amazed” at all the beneficial uses.

“The deeper you get into understanding the goodness of that plant the more you question why in the world we ever demonized it in the first place,” he adds,

Marijuana dates back to about 2700 B.C. in the Far East with the Chinese describing its euphoric and medical purposes, according to narconon.com, before it began to spread to India, North Africa and Europe. Even Muslims are said to have used it recreationally because the Koran banned alcohol use.

In the mid-1500s, Spaniards introduced it to the New World, and it became a cash crop but was overshadowed by cotton in the South.

Its use in medicines was minimal compared to opium and cocaine, though it was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and used for labor pains, nausea and rheumatism.

It didn’t become popular recreationally until the 1920s when Prohibition started and even then was confined to jazz clubs and “tea pads.”

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics characterized it in the 1930s as a “powerful, addictive” substance, according to narconon.com, and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified it as a Schedule I drug along with LSD and heroin.

Faison says the list of users is longer than most people think, going far beyond hippies, rebellious teens, rap stars and other musicians.

“As I started doing more exploration, people from all over the state of Tennessee started calling me, people that would shock you, people that go to church, people that are professional businessmen, professional businesswomen, teachers, educators, CEOs of companies,” he explains.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people across this state who are secretly either using the cannabis plant because conventional medicine has failed them or the side effects are so tremendous that they can’t deal with it. They’re wishing they could use this plant or they’re secretly using this plant.”

Faison says lobbyists and big corporations are behind the effort to “demonize” marijuana because it could render their medications obsolete.

On his Facebook page, Faison posts a column reporting Arizona-based Insys Therapeutics gave $500,000 to a group opposing marijuana legalization there.

The company produces an oral spray for the painkiller fentanyl and is set to market another spray containing dronabinol, synthetic THC, according to the article.

No doubt, the opiate lobby is stout. But Faison contends it’s past time to rethink derivatives of the poppy because of the toll painkillers are taking on Americans.

A recent USA Today article showed one person in America dies every 19 minutes from an overdose of an opioid derivative, he points out.

Meanwhile, the number of Tennesseans dying from opioid overdoses each year is increasing annually, from 1,062 in 2011 to more than 1,400 in 2015, according to the Department of Health.

Tennessee lawmakers generally agree the state must do a better job of combating opioid addiction and start weaning the public off painkillers, many calling it an epidemic.

Faison says the answer is waiting in the form of medical marijuana.

“I would encourage people to think: Are we alright with a doctor prescribing Xanax? Are we alright with a doctor prescribing Lortab but somehow we’re not alright with marijuana?” Faison asks.

He challenges people to show him one instance in which a person died from using medical marijuana, whether from a car accident or from stupid behavior.

“So when you start to look at the truth of what we’re doing and how we’re treating stuff and how it’s ineffective and what we could be doing, you find yourself getting real frustrated,” he says.

‘Right morally’

Faison became acquainted with families of extremely ill children a few years ago as he started working on the bill for cannabidiol oil, a compound that can help them medically without psychoactive effects or euphoric high.

Since the law took effect exempting the low-THC oil from marijuana statutes, one little girl, Josie Mae Mathes, who suffered about 500 seizures a day is down to about two to three seizures daily and is no longer in a “vegetative state” because of the myriad medicines she took, Faison says.

From a financial standpoint, cannabidiol is making a positive effect, as well, Faison says, because the child was taking numerous medications, one of which was costing taxpayers more than $20,000 a month, since the family was on TennCare.

In his quest, the lawmaker traveled to Colorado in October to meet with Tennessee “refugees,” people who wanted their children to be able to take advantage of more liberal marijuana laws. Colorado allows both medical and recreational marijuana.

While there, Faison says, he met with a hospice nurse who moved to Colorado from Memphis because she wanted to be part of programs allowing patients to use cannabis to make it through the final months and days of their lives, many of them suffering from cancer, brain tumors and other debilitating diseases.

Patients can function instead of being reduced to lifelessness.

“This hospice nurse says, ‘Every day of my life I see people playing cards with their family, they’re eating meals with their family, they are living a quality life that conventional medicine never gave them the ability to live,’” Faison points out.

The con

Faison will run into plenty of opposition when the session opens in January, from people who oppose medical marijuana philosophically to those who fear it could kill them at the ballot box, even if polls show a majority of Tennesseans back it medicinally.

He could face another hurdle from House Majority Leader Glen Casada.

The Franklin Republican wonders whether lawmakers such as Faison are letting their emotions control them instead of allowing the Federal Drug Administration to conduct its own rigorous tests and approve marijuana, just as it does other pharmaceuticals.

“I would submit let’s let marijuana go through the same procedure that every other drug does, and … if it proves to be safe and efficacious I’d be the first to vote for it,” Casada explains.

But while Casada and Faison could be at odds over marijuana legislation, about half the states in the nation have debated the matter and allow medical marijuana.

It’s not just the Left Coast, where California, Oregon and Washington let people use pot for medicine and fun. Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont and several other Western states allow it to ease the pain.

“I guess my question to those state legislators would be: Why do you not do that for every drug?” Casada asks. “Why are we showing favoritism to marijuana?”

For Faison, it’s a matter of common sense, and he plans to present the facts to lawmakers in January by bringing in medical experts.

“When you expose somebody to the truth, you really have to be a bad person to not act on the truth or either willfully ignorant,” Faison says.

In an effort to sway his Republican buddies, he will argue medical marijuana is the “conservative” route to take because it bucks the federal government’s efforts to “overstep” its bounds, saves taxpayers money and “it works.”

He also says he believes it could be an area in which Republicans could “lock shoulders” with Democrats, “put partisan politics aside and do the right thing” for Tennesseans.

Congress has passed appropriations bills the last two years preventing the attorney general from going after states that legalize medical marijuana. He believes President-elect Donald Trump will encourage the same thing.

He doesn’t foresee a downside, saying his bill will be “very tight,” requiring a medical card from the state Department of Health and a recommendation from a physician to keep underage people from getting medical marijuana.

“It’s the best drug that we have,” he says, “and it’s the one we’re not using. My gosh, how silly is that?”

The analysis

Of course, nothing dealing with drugs and alcohol is foolproof.

If there were a way to guarantee nobody but people who have legitimate illnesses could obtain medical marijuana, it would be an easy call. No doubt, it is less destructive than painkillers.

Kids will get into their parents’ stuff. But we also know people have been smoking marijuana and using other illicit drugs for years without doctors’ prescriptions. (Faison could even knock some illegal pot growers out of business in East Tennessee.)

For decades, young people also have been using fake IDs to buy beer and alcohol or sipping out of mom and dad’s liquor cabinet, then going out and driving drunk.

Likewise, a number of young people are stealing painkillers from their parents’ medicine cabinets, then getting hooked on heroin and destroying their lives.

The truth is people are going to find a way to get drunk and high one way or another. But anyone who believes opioids such as Xanax are better than medical marijuana is just fooling themselves.

Then again, medical pot is a lot stronger than the stuff people smoked 30 to 40 years ago.

This could be a case of picking your poison.

The ultimate question for Faison, though, is whether he can persuade his fellow Republican lawmakers to tell their Sunday school classes they’re going to vote in favor of weed.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.