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Front Page - Friday, January 6, 2017

Reactionaries, evidence vie on medicinal marijuana

Three-year-old Josie Mae Mathis of Greene County used to suffer hundreds of seizures daily from epilepsy and infantile spasms.

Aden Vogus, a pre-teen from Brentwood, has seen his seizures all but disappear.

Both are benefiting from cannabis oil since the Legislature decriminalized it – allowing it to be shipped in from other states – for medical purposes in 2015.

“We went from 500-plus seizures a day to, on a good day, 30,” says Josie Mae’s mother, Stacie Mathis.

And instead of living in a near vegetative state under previous medications, the child is full of life, though far from a normal childhood.

Mathis held her daughter behind Republican legislators Rep. Jeremy Faison and Sen. Steve Dickerson as they introduced a measure recently to legalize all forms of marijuana for medical purposes in Tennessee. Their bill would allow marijuana to be grown, prescribed and dispensed in Tennessee.

They understand it’s going to be a hard fight to persuade fellow lawmakers to vote in favor of a substance illegal for decades. Mathis says she’ll be doing her part.

“It’s a phone call or an email. If you’re a local, show up at their office. Just express your opinion on it and let them know you’re on board and we need their support to get on board as well,” Mathis explains.

Aden’s father, Tim Vogus, a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, worked with Faison and Sen. Becky Massey two years ago to help pass the cannabis oil bill.

Since it took effect, they’ve been able to import Charlotte’s Web oil (cannabidiol) from out of state, which Aden takes in pill form with his food twice a day.

Besides experiencing a dramatic drop in daily seizures, Aden avoids a drug he previously used to lessen seizures that also could cause blindness. The family had to sign a waiver so he could use it.

“We’ve been able to reduce some of those medicines while the seizure conditions have improved dramatically,” Tim Vogus says.

Likewise, the Mathis family no longer needs a batch of expensive pharmaceuticals, one of which cost taxpayers $20,000 a month because the family was on TennCare.

Children and their parents weren’t the only ones backing Faison and Dickerson at the State Capitol press conference. Veterans also flanked them.

Memphis resident Chris Chamberlain, an Army veteran, says he’s looking for a solution to terrible knee pain, a topical analgesic that can help him manage the pain without taking opioids or over-the-counter drugs than can damage his liver or kidneys. He points out most medical cannabis is not smoked.

“My main thing is I just want to see more leeway from prohibition to create something that is viable that doesn’t have detrimental side effects like a lot of pharmaceuticals do,” Chamberlain adds,

Brian Byers of Millington, who served in the Army Reserve and Air Force, says legislators should be taking a closer look at cannibidiol and other marijuana derivatives to reduce the dependence on morphine and opioids. More emphasis needs to go into taking care of veterans, he says, many of whom are coming home from the Middle East after several tours of duty with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

They’re being steered in the wrong direction medically, he explains.

“I think what they need is doctors that understand what’s going on and the environments they’ve been in and stop giving them 500 different drugs that they don’t have any idea what it’s doing to that individual,” Byers adds.

Making their case

Faison says he was once like many lawmakers in the General Assembly. He thought anyone who used marijuana was a “pothead.”

But since holding Josie Mae in his hands when she was only 6 months old, he’s been studying the medical uses of cannabis and changed his mind.

He went on a tour of Colorado earlier this year to see what the people there say and came away more convinced than ever it’s the right move to make. He doesn’t have the same take on recreational marijuana.

When doctors see a benefit for their patients from medicinal marijuana, they should have every right to use it, he says.

For centuries, marijuana was used for medicinal purposes before falling into disfavor with the federal government in the 1930s and becoming a Schedule 1 narcotic in the 1970s.

“We have veterans, retired police officers, children, parents. They have the desire to take ownership of their life, ownership of the health and welfare of their own life and don’t want to have the government involved,” says Faison from Cosby in the Smoky Mountains.

He and Dickerson, an anesthesiologist from Nashville, say their legislation is not about people “getting high” or “reefer madness.”

“This bill is about providing a healthy botanical that brings life and freedom to what you see here,” Faison adds.

The legislation

Dickerson and Faison point out the bill is “very narrow, very tightly circumscribed.”

It would decriminalize the growing, manufacturing, dispensing and use of the cannabis plant for patients who need it for medical purposes. The Medical Cannabis Commission would be created under the Department of Health to come up with the rules and pricing for licenses and safety checks.

The commission would have 15 to 21 members with representatives of the Departments of Agriculture, Safety and Health with members from health-care fields and business community appointed by the House and Senate speakers.

The commissioner of Financial Institutions would put together rules for state-chartered banks to follow if they accept funds from medical cannabis businesses.

Growing marijuana would be controlled through the commission and Department of Health and would be limited to 50 operations. Licenses would be limited to businesses located in distressed counties, and growth would be in warehouses with tight security.

Each business would be authorized to have up to three dispensaries and they could supply third-party dispensaries.

Tennessee could have a maximum of 150 dispensaries statewide, stores able to sell edibles, vape, oils, patches, creams, smokeless items, capsules and paraphernalia. Dispensaries could contract with any state-licensed grower, and complete security would be required.

All cannabis products would be subject to a 5 percent sales tax submitted to the Department of Revenue.

Health-care professionals would have to obtain a special license from the state to prescribe medical marijuana, and patients would have to get a medical cannabis card from one of those professionals.

Conditions covered by the proposed act include cancer, HIV/AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, post-traumatic stress syndrome, multiple sclerosis, painful peripheral neuropathy, refractory seizures, seizure disorder, spasticity, Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy.

The opposition

These medical marijuana proponents know what’s coming in the form of opposition.

While lawmakers such as House Majority Leader Glen Casada say they want more medical proof before backing this cannabis derivative, others are more critical.

Immediately after Faison and Dickerson introduced their bill, Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden posted a Facebook message, according to reports, saying the bill is designed for only one thing, “smoking weed … plain and simple.”

As with many other measures, Holt contends the bill sponsors are seeking sympathy by saying it’s for children and veterans.

“This is a step towards legalizing a drug that is dangerous,” Holt writes, “and I’ll have NOTHING to do with it, other than fight it to the bitter end.”

Dickerson and Faison understand the criticism. But they and thousands of others looking for a solution to Tennessee’s opioid addiction crisis (about 1,500 overdosed on opioids in 2015) believe medical marijuana could be the answer with a very limited psychotropic effect.

In fact, Dickerson says many people he’s talked to while on the job would rather risk getting in trouble for using marijuana to deal with pain than continue using opioids.

But what about the risk of medical pot getting into the hands of people who don’t have a medical card?

“Diversion is a risk with any medication,” Dickerson says, along with alcohol and tobacco.

Recreational cannabis is readily available in high schools and middle schools across Tennessee, he adds, noting teenagers tell him it’s easier to get than alcohol.

“So it doesn’t make sense to me that you have a critically ill person that gets a cannabis-derived product that may be pretty low in THC, it may have a very limited psychotropic effect, and have that diverted to a teenager who could have gone and gotten it from a street corner, figuratively,” he points out.

Making sense of this will be a tough task for Faison and Dickerson in 2017.

Even though more than half the states in the nation allow medical marijuana (providing access to more than 60 percent of the populace), they’ll run into dozens of lawmakers such as Holt who already have their minds set.

They won’t budge, either, until they run into a personal crisis affecting them or their family – or until voters decide to put someone else in office.

Eventually, Tennessee will catch up with the rest of America.

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